Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.
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 permeate many societal practices and structures, including measuring progress via the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
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. Meanwhile, 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.
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 which may be 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 lifestyle of luxury and leisure that it enables—is the most important pursuit for a good life. The perception that the more we consume the happier we can be is inconsistent with evidence from the study of well-being, yet many of us continue to buy into this theory. 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 the celebrity lifestyle as paradigms of a good life.
The pursuit of a life of luxury does not come without severe costs, however, perpetuating deep social inequities and environmental degradation. The consumption that defines these lifestyles drives unsustainable levels of resource extraction, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste creation with severe impacts on both natural and social systems. For example, when jet-setting to our private islands becomes a norm, carbon emissions dramatically increase. Fostering a sustainable future calls on us to critically question whether such a lifestyle is an okay thing to pursue, and to think differently about well-being.
In the process of redefining notions of happiness and success, both individuals and decision-makers are important actors. At an individual level, social-signaling can be used to normalize values of environmental and social responsibility. When we publicly express beliefs about how people should act, and demonstrate these beliefs through our behaviour, this influences other people to think and behave in similar ways. The very power that instilled values of luxury can therefore be redirected to foster new social norms.
Governments have a key role to play in developing policy, education and infrastructure that enable broader social change at this leverage point. This means transforming these institutions to not solely foster growth defined in monetary terms, but to also foster non-material factors which are important determinants of our well-being. This includes prioritizing the value of relationships with nature in environmental decision-making, rather than focusing on the economic value of ecosystem services.
Across the world we can find examples of communities embracing diverse worldviews that could inform and inspire transformation in prevailing 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 ‘enoughness’ which sits in contrast to dominant definitions of progress. Therefore, addressing this leverage point will not necessarily require efforts to build new visions out of thin air. Rather, the challenge will be overcoming the interests of those who are invested in the status quo.
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 a more holistic understanding of well-being that incorporates non-material factors, specifically the centering of harmonious relationships with people and nature. When we pursue economic prosperity as a means in-and-of itself, we risk abandoning social and environmental well-being— the very factors that are necessary for a sustainable, healthy eco
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Nussbaum, M. (2003). Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9(2-3), 33-59. https://doi.org/10.1080/1354570022000077926