Rethinking the Good Life

Wealth and Well-being
The Power of One
The Ties That Bind
Creating Infrastructures of Well-being
Getting to the Good Life

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“A city is successful not when it’s rich but when its people are happy.” — Enrique Pe–alosa, Mayor, Bogotá, Colombia

Most governments make ongoing increases in gross domestic product (GDP) a chief priority of domestic policy, under the assumption that wealth secured is well-being delivered. Yet undue emphasis on generating wealth, especially by encouraging heavy consumption, may be yielding diminishing returns.

Rethinking what constitutes “the good life” is overdue in a world on a fast track to self-inflicted ill health and planet-wide damage to forests, oceans, biodiversity, and other natural resources. By redefining prosperity to emphasize a higher quality of life rather than the mere accumulation of goods, individuals, communities, and governments can focus on delivering what people most desire. Indeed, a new understanding of the good life can be built not around wealth but around well-being: having basic survival needs met, along with freedom, health, security, and satisfying social relations. Consumption would still be important, to be sure, but only to the extent that it boosts quality of life.


Wealth and Well-being

“In recent years, psychologists studying measures of life satisfaction have largely confirmed the old adage that money can’t buy happiness—at least not for people who are already affluent.”

Societies focused on well-being involve more interaction with family, friends, and neighbors, a more direct experience of nature, and more attention to finding fulfillment and creative expression than in accumulating goods. They emphasize lifestyles that avoid abusing your own health, other people, or the natural world. In short, they yield a deeper sense of satisfaction with life than many people report experiencing today.

What provides for a satisfying life? In recent years, psychologists studying measures of life satisfaction have largely confirmed the old adage that money can’t buy happiness—at least not for people who are already affluent. The disconnection between money and happiness in wealthy countries is perhaps most clearly illustrated when growth in income in industrial countries is plotted against levels of happiness. In the United States, for example, the average person’s income more than doubled between 1957 and 2002, yet the share of people reporting themselves to be “very happy” over that period remained static.

Average Income and Happiness in the United States, 1957–2002

Average Income and Happiness in the United States

Not surprisingly, the relationship between wealth and life satisfaction is different in poor countries. There, income and well-being are indeed coupled, probably because more of a poor person’s income is used to meet basic needs.


The Power of One

“A small but growing number of consumers are questioning the way they shop, the amount of ‘stuff’ crowding and complicating their lives, and the amount of time they spend at work.”

Growing numbers of people are shopping with an eye toward well-being. In Europe, for example, demand for organically grown foods drove sales up to $10 billion in 2002, 8 percent above the previous year.

Beyond a shift in shopping habits, many consumers are trying to simplify their lifestyles in broader ways—a process sometimes called “downshifting.” Estimates of the numbers of downshifters are imprecise, but interest in simplifying appears to be growing. In seven European countries, the number of people who have voluntarily reduced their working hours has grown at 5.3 percent each year over the past five years, for example. And the trend toward simplicity is expected to continue.

Yet individual initiatives alone do not necessarily help to build strong, healthy communities (although they can free up time that could lead to greater community involvement), nor can they address the structural obstacles to genuine consumer choice—the lack of organic produce in the supermarket, for instance. Some critics even argue that, pursued in isolation, individual initiatives can be counterproductive. An “individualization of responsibility,” as political and environmental scientist Michael Maniates notes, distracts attention from the role that such institutions as business and government play in perpetuating unhealthy consumption. Moreover, to the extent that individuals see their power residing primarily in their pocketbooks, they may neglect their key roles as parents, educators, community members, and citizens in building a society of well-being.


The Ties That Bind

“Humans are social beings, so it is little surprise that good relationships are one of the most important ingredients for a high quality of life.”

Harvard Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam notes that “the single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction…is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.” People who are socially connected tend to be healthier—often significantly so. More than a dozen long-term studies in Japan, Scandinavia, and the United States show that the chances of dying in a given year, no matter the cause, is two to five times greater for people who are isolated than for socially connected people.

International development professionals also now acknowledge that strong social ties are a major contributor to a country’s development. The World Bank, for instance, sees social connectedness as a form of capital—an asset that yields a stream of benefits useful for development.

A lack of social capital also seems to be connected with poor economic growth at the national level. Stephen Knack of the World Bank warns that low levels of societal trust may lock countries in a “poverty trap,” in which the vicious circle of mistrust, low investment, and poverty is difficult to break.

Beyond improving health and facilitating economic security, strong social ties are especially helpful in promoting collective consumption, which often has social and environmental advantages. A good example of this is co-housing, a modern form of village living in which 10–40 individual households live in a development designed to stimulate neighborly interaction.

In a co-housing community, houses often share common walls with neighboring homes and are clustered around a courtyard or pedestrian walkway. Cars are typically confined to the perimeter of the community property. The design means that these communities often use less energy and fewer materials than neighborhoods full of private homes. A study of 18 communities in the United States in the mid-1990s found that, compared with before they moved into co-housing, members owned 4 percent fewer cars, while their ownership of washers and dryers dropped by 25 percent and of lawnmowers by 75 percent. The average living space per household in the 18 communities—including each unit’s share of the common room area—was about 1,400 square feet, two thirds as big as the average new U.S. home in the mid-1990s.

But perhaps the greatest contribution of co-housing communities to a high quality of life is the social ties they create. The communities are self-managed, which encourages interactions and sharing.

In many developing countries, too, collective consumption is more feasible in communities with a strong social base. A World Bank study of 64 villages in Rajasthan, India, for example, found that conservation and development of watersheds was more successful in villages that exhibited strong levels of trust, informal networks, and solidarity than in villages that had fewer of these social assets.


Creating Infrastructures of Well-being

“Creating a higher quality of life requires us all—individuals and communities—to help create new political, physical, and cultural ‘infrastructures of well-being.’”

When individuals or communities seek to enhance their quality of life, they may be handcuffed by the set of choices available to them. Organic produce, reusable beverage bottles, or mass transit obviously cannot be bought if they are not offered for sale. The rules and policies that determine the set of choices available, such as oil subsidies that make fossil energy cheaper than wind power, zoning laws that encourage sprawling development, or building codes that frown on the use of recycled building materials, are essentially the “infrastructure of consumption.”

Some governments are beginning to use their authority to help create a political environment conducive to well-being. The most basic of their initiatives is to properly assess community or societal health, as the city of Santa Monica is doing through a Sustainable City Plan. In place since 1994, the plan aims to decrease overall community consumption, especially the use of materials and resources that are not local, nonrenewable, not recycled, and not recyclable. It also seeks to develop a diversity of transportation options, to minimize the use of hazardous or toxic materials, to preserve open space, and to encourage participation in community decisionmaking.

At the national level, the standard tool used to measure societal health, GDP, is much too narrow to serve as a yardstick of well-being because it sums all economic transactions, regardless of their contribution to quality of life. It also ignores entire swaths of nonmarket activity that contribute to individual and community well-being, such as the child care provided by a stay-at-home parent. Throughout the 1990s, researchers worked to develop alternative measures, such as the Ecological Footprint, the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Human Development Index, and the Living Planet Index, to complement the perspective of GDP. One such effort, the Wellbeing Index developed by sustainability consultant Robert Prescott-Allen, is noteworthy for its comprehensiveness.

Measuring Well-Being

The Wellbeing Index uses 87 indicators to measure human and ecological well-being—ranging from life expectancy and school enrolment rates to the extent of deforestation and levels of carbon emissions. The 87 indicators can help countries identify the areas in which their quality of life is suffering. Values from the array of indicators are standardized and summed into a single score for ease of comparison across 180 countries.

The results are revealing: some two thirds of the world’s people live in countries with a bad or poor rating for human well-being. Only Norway, Denmark, and Finland receive the highest of the five rating levels. Meanwhile, countries with a poor or bad environmental rating cover almost half of Earth’s land area. And no country receives a good environmental rating.

In addition to recalibrating yardsticks for societal health, governments are using their extensive legislative and regulatory powers to shape the way people consume and the values a society internalizes regarding consumption. Eliminating perverse subsidies and adopting pollution taxes, for example, have already proved useful in creating a cleaner environment and a higher quality of life in many European countries.

And many governments in Europe are helping workers and families to carve out extra time each week. Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway now have 35- to 38-hour workweeks, which in addition to freeing up valuable time for workers often help to create new jobs.

Government interventions like these are likely to create a less stressful home environment. Finland, for example, has very strong policies supporting the employment of mothers, including paid parental leave, tax relief for child care, publicly funded child care, and other measures. A 2001 study of the psychological benefit to parents of these measures found that, in contrast to the United States, where parenting tended to be associated with poor psychological well-being because of the stress involved and lack of family support, parenting in Finland correlated either neutrally or positively with psychological well-being. For fathers, the results were strongly positive, but for mothers somewhat less so, indicating that support for them could be strengthened.

Central to changing the legal and political infrastructure of well-being is achieving clarity about the importance of providing public services. The increased priority given to private consumption in many countries in recent decades has often given public services a bad name. But societies pay a social price when private consumption is pursued at the expense of public investment.

Attention to the design of physical infrastructure is also critical to improving quality of life. Car-centered suburban dwellings, for example, have long been criticized for weakening community cohesion, in part because of the time required to commute to work. In 2003, sprawling suburban developments were also criticized for their adverse effects on health. A U.S. study of more than 200,000 people in 448 counties found that those living in low-density suburban communities tended to spend less time walking and weighed 6 pounds more on average than those living in densely populated areas. Suburbanites were also found to be as likely as cigarette smokers to have high blood pressure.

Meanwhile, urban design can deter—or attract—cyclists. Surveys in the United States indicate that a principal reason Americans give for not cycling is that they regard the practice as unsafe. And it is. Measured per kilometer of travel, cycling in the United States is more dangerous than any other form of transportation. Yet the accident rate for cyclists in the Netherlands and Germany is only one quarter the U.S. rate, largely because those nations invest in bike lanes, stoplights that favor cyclists, and other infrastructure developments that make cycling safe.

People are increasingly active in demanding a higher ethical standard of advertisers to promote an ethic of consumption for well-being. In Sweden, all advertising is forbidden in programming directed at children, a particularly impressionable group. And in the United States, cigarette ads have been forbidden on television for decades. Setting boundaries for advertising is a sensitive topic, given concerns that such parameters might limit free speech, but countries can strike a healthy balance between protecting speech and public health.

Meanwhile, advertising itself is being used as a tool to fight the high number of consumption messages bombarding consumers. The Canadian group Adbusters sponsors TV “uncommercials” that encourage viewers to reduce consumption, leave their cars in their garages, or turn off their televisions.

Education is also important in reshaping culture for a higher quality of life. In Brazil, the nongovernmental group Instituto Akatu has worked with schools, businesses, and Scout troops to educate participants to “consume consciously.” The organization uses a variety of tools—from the Internet to pamphlets, comic books, and games—to teach the environmental and social consequences of consumption and to tell people how to lobby governments to press for changes in policy that will help promote conscious consumption.


Getting to the Good Life

“People long for something deeper— happy, dignified, and meaningful lives—in a word, well-being. And they expect their economies to be a tool to this end, not an obstacle to it.”

Lurking beneath growing dissatisfaction with the consumer society is a simple question: What is an economy for? The traditional responses, including prosperity, jobs, and expanded opportunity, seem logical enough—until they become dysfunctional. When prosperity makes us overweight, overwork leaves us exhausted, and a “you can have it all” mindset leads us to neglect family and friends, people start to question more deeply the direction of their lives as well as the system that helps steer them in that direction. The signals emerging in some industrial countries—and some developing ones as well—suggest that many of us are looking for more from life than a bigger house and a new car.

A well-being society would offer consumers a sufficient range of genuine choices rather than a large array of virtually identical products. Businesses would be encouraged through economic incentives to deliver what consumers really seek—reliable transportation, not necessarily a car; or tasty, seasonal local produce rather than fruits and vegetables shipped in from another country; or strong neighborhood relationships in lieu of a large house with a big yard. Choice would be redefined to mean options for increasing quality of life rather than selections among individual products or services.

For individuals, genuine choice would also likely include the choice not to consume. Everyone will need to become practiced at wrestling with a key question: How much is enough? Responses will vary from person to person, but a guideline worth considering is one from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “To know when you have enough is to be rich.” Consumers who embrace this ancient wisdom take a large step toward escaping the tyranny of social comparison and marketing that drives so much of today’s consumption.

People in a well-being society would also develop close relationships with the natural environment. As the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said: “We must develop an emotional and spiritual bond with nature, for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”

Finally, a society focused on well-being would ensure that everyone in it has access to healthy food, clean water and sanitation, education, health care, and physical security. It is virtually impossible to imagine a society of well-being that does not provide for people’s basic needs. And more than that, it is inconceivable that a well-being society would be satisfied with its own success if others outside its borders are suffering on a broad scale. Indeed, those societies that rank highest in the Wellbeing Index, especially in northern Europe, also have some of the world’s most generous foreign aid programs.

Making the transition to a society of well-being will undoubtedly be a challenge, given people’s habit of placing consumption at the apex of societal values. But any move in this direction starts out with two strong advantages. First, the human family today has a base of knowledge, technology, that can be invested in well-being rather than in continued material accumulation for its own sake. A second advantage is simple but powerful: for many people, a life of well-being is preferred to a life of high consumption.

By nurturing relationships, facilitating healthy choices, learning to live in harmony with nature, and tending to the basic needs of all, societies can shift from an emphasis on consumption to an emphasis on well-being. This could be as great an achievement in the twenty-first century as the tremendous advances in opportunity, convenience, and comfort were in the twentieth.