11/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Something Good About the Economic Meltdown

"Having a heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me," a patient once told me many years ago.

"How so?" I wondered.

"Well, that's what it took to get my attention--to begin making major changes in my life that have made me so much healthier and happier. Had I not gone through that crisis, I might be dead by now."

Since then, I've heard statements like this over and over again. Suffering gets our attention and can be a powerful catalyst for transforming our lives for the better.

Why? Because change is challenging. But if you're in enough pain, then the idea of making changes may start to seem more attractive: "Well, it may be hard, but I'm in so much pain, I'm ready to try something different." There is an enormous clarification process that often leads to healing. As my wife, Anne, often says, "A breakdown can lead to a breakthrough."

Of course, I would never say, "Hey, it's great that you've had a heart attack!" If I did, the proper response would be a nice Hawaiian punch in the nose. Nevertheless, suffering of any kind can be a doorway for transforming our lives for the better.

Pain is bearable when it has meaning, when something good comes from it. Although no one looks for suffering, sometimes, despite our best efforts, there it is. How we deal with it can make all the difference in the world. We can understand its alchemy and the possibilities for transformation when it happens.

This is as true on a planetary level as it is on a personal one. As my friend Henry Groppe, a prescient Houston oil and gas consultant, recently shared with me, "The international economy is having a heart attack. It takes severe impacts to get people to change deeply embedded patterns of behavior. For the economy to get better rather than much worse, it's essential that people change the path they've been on of living beyond their means--from the top of the government down to the individual. "

A recent Gallup Poll surveying over a thousand adults found that 40% feel afraid, and 53% are angry. More than half said their financial situation was harmed; two-thirds said it will suffer long-term. And this was before the global economic meltdown last week.

The American Psychological Association found that more than half of Americans report irritability or anger, fatigue and sleeplessness, almost half say they self-medicate by overeating or indulging in unhealthy foods, and two-thirds of smokers report they smoke even more. Over 80% of those surveyed reported that money and the economy were their most important stressors, and 46% report being worried about providing for their family's basic needs.

Fear and stress can become self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling. In 1929, for example, many people became afraid that banks didn't have enough money, which caused so many people to withdraw their savings that banks ran out of money. Last week, enough people began to lose trust that President Bush and Secretary Paulson could address the underlying causes of the economic crisis that many people decided to capitulate--that is, to sell all of their stocks and mutual funds even at huge losses because of the fear that it might only get worse.

Therefore, trust needs to be restored. Trust is everything, in relationships both personal and global.

One of the most exciting findings in neurosciences in the past decade was the discovery of what are called "mirror neurons." These parts of the brain fire when doing an action or observing an action performed by another person.

For example, if a monkey performs a certain task, neurons become activated in a specific part of its brain. However, if a monkey just watches another monkey perform the same task, then neurons in the same part of the brain fire in that monkey, just as if he were doing the same action.

Mirror neurons help to explain on a physiological level "what goes around, comes around," or what Dan Goleman calls "emotional contagion," the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed.

Our emotions resonate with each other--for better and for worse. Fear leads to more fear, and trust leads to more trust. If you're with a close friend, your anger may raise his blood pressure as well as your own, whereas loving feelings may lower blood pressure in both of you.

Also, this may help explain why compassion and forgiveness are so powerful--not only for the recipient but also for the giver. In this context, it helps to redefine the false choice between taking care of yourself ("selfish") versus looking out for others ("unselfish"). When we help others, we also help ourselves.

Which brings me to my main point. If anything good comes out of this financial crisis, if any meaning can be found beyond learning to live more frugally, it may be learning to value collaboration over competition, and selflessness over selfishness. In a global economy, the Bush doctrine of unilateralism--going it alone--has been disastrous. It's becoming increasingly clear that we're all in this together. Your happiness is my happiness, your suffering is my suffering, your recession is my recession. As Tom Friedman recently wrote, "And therein lies the central truth of globalization today: We're all connected and nobody is in charge."

It doesn't take long to see what happens when countries put aside their differences and find new ways of working together. After realizing that the politics of polarization actually threatened the economic survival of our country, Republicans and Democrats finally overcame their significant political differences to pass the $850 billion bailout bill. Last week, European leaders overcame their differences and pledged to take equity stakes in distressed banks and vowed to guarantee bank lending for up to five years. "The meeting that we had was exceptional," President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, said at a news conference. "We need concrete measures, we need unity. That's what we achieved."

The next day, the stock market rose 936 points, the largest rise in history. It's as though the universe is asking, "Can I make it any clearer to you?"