The Myth of the Good Life: Realizing Both Happiness and Sustainability

Leverage Point 1: Paradigms and Visions of a Good Life

Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.

Image by Max Böhme, Unsplash.

Prevailing Thinking:

Throughout our daily lives, we are inundated with the message that a good life is one with high material consumption and economic growth. It is a widespread belief that our happiness is directly linked to the goods and services we consume and that success is proportional to monetary wealth and income. These visions of a good life pervade many societal practices and structures, including measuring progress via the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).


Transformed Thinking:

Research shows that beyond a relatively low income (near poverty), happiness is determined much more by relationships with people and nature than by income or spending. Around the world, diverse visions of a good life recognize this. Fostering these diverse visions—both among individuals and in practices like measures of progress—could both enable widespread fulfillment and sustainable trajectories for people and nature.


Elaboration:

There is no doubt that rising GDP over time has produced positive benefits for many, enabling higher standards of living and lower poverty rates. However, growth in GDP is not indicative of other, non-material conditions associated with progress and well-being, such as income and racial equality, access to care, and a healthy environment. Calls to adopt alternative metrics for economic progress (e.g., the Genuine Progress Indicator) and to define success in non-monetary terms are part of a larger transformation that’s needed for a sustainable future.


Specifically, this means a transformation of the widespread notion that money—and the lifestyles of luxury and leisure that it enables—is the most important pursuit for a good life.


The notion that money can buy happiness is inconsistent with evidence from research on well-being, yet many of us continue to buy into this theory—at least implicitly. We often purchase things in an attempt to signal our identity or level of success, with the aim of attaining both social recognition and personal satisfaction. The widespread fixation on celebrity culture is emblematic of this social norm, influenced by the media’s persistent promotion of celebrity lifestyles as paragons of a good life.


This is not to blame individuals or label them as unethical. Rather, it is to recognize the role of the widely held value of luxury in perpetuating deep social inequities and environmental degradation. The consumption associated with a lifestyle of luxury drives unsustainable levels of resource extraction, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste creation with severe impacts on both natural and social systems. Fostering a sustainable future means questioning whether such a lifestyle is desirable or even acceptable, and to think differently about what defines a good life.



Image by Shifaaz Shamoon, Unsplash.

Paths Forward:

In the process of redefining notions of happiness and success, both individuals and decision-makers play important roles. As individuals, we can instigate change not only through our private actions (i.e., by embracing new notions of a good life), but also by influencing our friends, communities, and other folks we come into contact with through what’s called ‘social signalling’. Research shows that when we publicly express our beliefs about how people should act and act in accordance with these beliefs, others are influenced to think and behave in similar ways. This means that the same forces that gave rise to obsessions with luxury can be redirected to foster new notions of a good life.

Transformation must also occur at the level of policy-making, education, and infrastructure. Governments can work to evolve these institutions such that they cultivate sustainable well-being first, and economic growth only as a means to that end. This includes prioritizing the value of relationships with people and with nature in environmental decision-making, rather than focusing primarily on the economic value of ecosystem services. It would also include cultivating benefit corporations (which strive for social benefit) in place of corporations (which are legally obliged to maximize shareholder value).


Across the world we can find examples of communities embracing diverse worldviews that could inform and inspire alternate notions of a good life. One example is Buen Vivir, a pluralistic worldview that has a diversity of expressions across several regions of South America. At its core is the fundamental value of living well in community with both people and nature, as well as an ethic of ‘sufficiency’ that sits in contrast to the prevailing culture of overconsumption in high-income countries (see Leverage Point 2, Consumption). Addressing this leverage point will often not require building new visions, but empowering existing ones that hold promise for a better future for all.


Clarification:

Moving away from the notion that success is defined by luxury and economic growth does not mean abandoning all economic pursuits or forms of material comfort. Alternatively, it calls for more holistic understandings of well-being that centre non-material factors, including harmonious relationships with people and nature. Little luxuries are good—so they should be shared equitably.

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