I recently sat through an epic rant by a friend about the Dow Jones average, which had plummeted that day. (What day? Does it matter?) It boiled down to: Everything you believe is wrong. He didn’t mean about finance. He meant about human existence. Do you think you have some influence over your own happiness or destiny? Guess again, friend. Just check the Dow.
And, yes, the Dow has been falling. Then rallying a little. Up, down, up. Last month it dipped below 8,000, hitting lows that haven’t been the norm since 1997. Why, it’s almost as if the last decade never happened! Because if we’ve lost all the accrued value of the 30 companies that make up the Dow Jones average, then what was the point of it all? We may as well have spent ten years in a cryogenic freezer.
This is not to suggest that an enduring recession won’t have real-life consequences. (My ranting friend envisions the full-on Mad Max: nationwide breadlines, burning cars, gangs of mohawked ruffians with chain saws where their arms should be.) This is simply to point out that we now seem to regard the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a kind of National Happiness Index—as if the Dow were plugged directly into our collective frontal lobe. In fact, it’s worse than that. We don’t see the Dow as measuring how we feel. We see the Dow as telling us how to feel.
Sitting in a co-worker’s office the other day, I heard a bell. She looked at her computer and said simply, “Shit.” Sick relative? House burned down? “The Dow fell again,” she said. She’d arranged for up-to-the-minute alerts. I pointed out that perhaps the reason for her asphyxiating pessimism wasn’t that the Dow was falling, but that she had set her computer to alert her every time the Dow was falling.
Then I suggested to her what I’ll suggest to you: Step away from the blogs. Cancel the alerts. Try to recall a time when we could be prodded to hope or despair by something other than lines on a graph. Hey, remember when we elected a black president? That was pretty great, right? So for a day, a month, hell, even a year, do yourself a favor: Don’t check the Dow.