The Irish Times published on 14 April 2012 a detailed account of how the economic crisis was pushing many businessmen to take their own lives. Even the New York Times devoted a long article that week to the problem and presented the testimony of family members of several men who had recently killed themselves.
The death of Giovanni Schiavone, an entrepreneur who committed suicide in Padua at the end of 2011, constitutes the archetype of those who have seen no other option than putting an end to their days. Mr. Schiavone had lived through much better times in the recent past, and now he was being forced to face overwhelming financial pressures and to witness the destruction of the enterprise that he had fought so hard to create.
A good part of the men who have killed themselves were owners of small companies, artisans and merchants that could not withstand the shame of being unable to pay their creditors and employees, or the loss of reputation associated with insolvency or bankruptcy. On many occasions, the financial difficulties were compounded by family and health problems. All factors combined, the psychological pressure had become irresistible. In Greece, for instance, the number of suicides is reported to have almost doubled since 2010, when the economic downturn began.
The suicide reports are however surprising if you place them into a wider context. While the number of cases in Europe has increased dramatically during the last years, very few of the concerned persons are reported to have been terminally sick or desperately poor. Despite the widespread financial struggles, few people in Europe actually go hungry or have to sleep on the street.
A wide network of social agencies, charities and churches provides help to those who are going through hard times. Support is available to those who need a warm meal and a place to sleep. Although most people will find demeaning having to beg for help, the fact is that such help can be obtained if the situation becomes real bad.
The suicide statistics are even more difficult to fathom if we compare the living conditions in Europe with those in sub-Saharan Africa, where thousands of people suffer from extreme poverty and hunger. Paradoxically, those who risk starvation in Africa rarely commit suicide, an idea that they would find surely inconceivable if their standard of living was raised to the level of the poorest Europeans.
Helplessness and despondency
A closer look to the wave of suicides in Europe can teach us some important lessons about the pursuit of happiness. Contrary to what is reported by the media, poverty is not the real reason behind the increased number of suicides in Europe. As it is clearly demonstrated by history, people do not kill themselves just because they are poor. Through the centuries, millions of human beings have lived in dire poverty in many parts of the world and suicide has remained a rare event.
Lack of money seldom deprives individuals of their will to live. In many cases, poverty has been known to energize men to work hard and turn their lives around. To say that people tend to kill themselves when they lose their jobs is as inexact as saying that people tend to drink hot soup when they are sick. Some do, and some don't, but there is insufficient evidence to establish a link of causality.
If the reasons for the increased number of suicides are not purely economic, then what are they? The reactions to the death of Giovanni Schiavone give us a clue to the answer, when we learn that he had never expected things to become so bad.
The reports in the media on the increased numbers of suicides have led some commentators to demand extra financial support for struggling businessmen, but I am afraid that this idea misses the point completely. The suicides reported by the press would have not been prevented if some system of financial subsidies had been put in place, since there is no guarantee that the subsidies would have been granted to the right persons when their need was most pressing.
An impartial analysis of the situation must begin by paying a close attention to the statements made by those who have taken their own lives. It is very telling to read repeatedly in the suicide reports that the deceased persons "had not seen their problems coming" and that they felt "unable to find a way out the crisis."
Hopelessness, despondency and shame are the real reasons behind the wave of suicides in Europe. Those are the factors that have really led people to put an end to their lives. At least some of those unfortunate deaths have not been caused by hunger and physical pain, but by a wrong philosophy, by a distorted world-view that is driving so many men and women to despair. Each of those unnecessary deaths breaks my heart. They are cruel, unfair, wasteful and catastrophic.
The crucial question to ask is whether the businessmen and the unemployed that have regrettably committed suicide would have remained alive if they had adopted preventive measures to cushion the sort of financial troubles that nowadays can happen to anyone, in any country, from one moment to the next.
I can certainly not judge those persons as individuals, since I do not know all the details of their personal circumstances. My concern is focused primary on the future, on the prevention of similar misfortunes when the difficulties become overwhelming. My goal is to prevent that you, the reader, will ever find yourself in a situation where you find all doors closed.
Losing your job or your business during an economic recession is an extremely unpleasant experience, but it has happened to millions of people in history and will continue to happen to millions of people in the future. Those disasters are in fact everyday events in most countries of the world.
Fashions change and can drive some companies into bankruptcy. Well-meaning but incompetent managers sometimes drive their businesses into the ground and cause thousands of employees to lose their jobs. Bad decisions can ruin investors, cities, and whole countries. That is all too regrettable, but that's simply life.
My point is that you need to adopt measures to ensure that you will be able to survive even if the worst happens to you. You should definitely not wait until you are already caught in the trap, with all doors closed and all your resources exhausted.
The extreme short-term thinking that dominates our culture is leading millions of people to act irrationally and expose themselves to disproportionate risks that they could have easily avoided. A low rate of personal savings is on most occasions the direct cause of the desperate situations that make people view suicide as the only possible option. Financial pressure, coupled with a low level of psychological resilience, form the explosive cocktail that explains the recent wave of suicides in Europe.
Our task here is to examine the tragic events and draw conclusions that can help you improve your life. The suicide prevention hot-line numbers mentioned in the New York Times article published on 15 April 2012 are, in my view, unlikely to make things better. The best approach to prevent desperate financial situations is simply to have a back-up plan, an alternative to the baseline, an option that you can use when everything else fails.
How to increase your resilience
At the same time, it will certainly benefit you to do everything you can to increase your psychological resilience. The acquisition of a steady character and a well-integrated philosophy is the best present that you can make yourself, a present that is going to allow you to thrive in good times and stay afloat when the situation becomes worrying.
These are the three steps that I recommend you to take, the sooner the better, in order to make yourself immune to the next economic catastrophe:
First, open a bank account in a foreign country: This is the first and most basic precaution to be adopted against a total financial collapse. Very few countries in the world forbid their citizens to open bank accounts abroad, and if you are reading this, chances are that you don't live yourself in any of those countries. In any case, you should check that this is legal in your country before actually doing it.
A simple internet bank account in a foreign currency will allow you to make deposits outside your country and keep them there for a rainy day. If the economic situation in your place of residence becomes a total mess, you will always be able to fall back on your foreign savings to ensure your financial survival.
Second, invest in assets located in other continents: You do not need a large sum of money to be able to do this. Nowadays it has become the easiest thing in the world to invest in mutual funds that will put your cash to work in a specific country or region of the world.
Most stock markets also offer you the possibility of investing in Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) that will channel your savings specifically into Poland, Finland, the Middle East, South Africa, Australia, China, India, or other growing economies.
By buying shares if any of those ETFs, you can participate in the growth of a specific country or region different from your place of residence. The broker fees for purchasing those ETFs are relatively modest, and if you spread your savings amongst several ETFs, you will mightily increase your financial resilience in case that your country falls into a deep economic recession. Geographical diversification is one of the most effective forms of protection.
Third, separate your business ventures from your private finances: Some of the European businessmen that have committed suicide in the past two years have undoubtedly done so out of shame. They could simply not make themselves face the loss of reputation that typically goes along with insolvency or bankruptcy.
They had grown to see their companies as inextricable parts of their lives, as elements so essential to their existence that they could simply not imagine to continue to live in their absence.
Such devotion to a particular business or job is of course utter nonsense. Every person can be happy and successful in a varied range of enterprises. A wise man may love his job or his business, but he also sees them as external elements that he might need to replace or renounce in the future, something that will inevitably happen when he retires due to old age.
An added precaution that everybody should take is to create multiple sources of income. Nothing renders an individual more self-reliant than the ability to say no to any job or business proposition in the confidence that he will be always able to fall back on his second income.
To secure a second source of revenue takes some work, but it is perfectly feasible for most people. If you are a professional, you could devote two days per month to give an intensive seminar on the subject of your expertise; or if you have an office job, you could try to develop your weekend hobby into a business.
By adopting a few common-sense measures, you can make absolutely sure that you won't be one of the victims of the next economic downturn. All you need to do is to devote a few hours to drawing up your personal back-up plan and then implement it without hesitation. Bad things do happen to good and bad people, but they can only wipe you out if they find you unprepared.
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For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books
On the subject of rational living, here is the link to a recent interview:
John Vespasian interviewed by George Wilder Jr