Why isn’t wealth enough? Why does the American dream deliver so many individual nightmares? Why does material ‘success’ not uniformly generate happiness?
Sociologists have demonstrated that beyond a certain level, increased wealth does not correlate with increased happiness. The ‘leading causes of life’ provides a framework within which we can understand better the things which enhance our lives, but that economic metrics fail to encapsulate. A future worth deserving must contain more than apocalypse dodging; our future should nurture the life experiences that enrich.
The first ‘cause of life’ is coherence. A rich life is understood through a narrative that is meaningful to us. In traditional communities, coherence often links to religion. Coherence is expressed by our internal storytelling, fitting our experiences to a common framework. In the capitalist paradigm where meaning = wealth accumulation, coherence is reduced for those either systematically (e.g. the ‘working class’) or capriciously (victims of illness, misfortune and circumstance) denied this wealth.
Second is connection, the experience of life in community. A good experience is emptier without others to share it. Tools like the internet can connect some but drive isolation for others. A focus on wealth can undervalue connection, reduce family to inheritance, encourage uprootedness.
The third cause is agency, the ability to act effectively. Agency is self-determination, being a subject, not object, of your internal story. It is denied when Government, corporations, bullies, arcane rules and inflexible frameworks are a barrier to your goals –it is lacking to both the ‘jobsworth’ and his victim, denied when democracy is absent or failing.
The fourth is hope, living life in positive anticipation. Applying our agency to realise our hopes is crucial to sustaining our self-narrative. In capitalism hope can be reduced to the constant desire for more, something that can never be properly realised. A richer narrative of hope, empowered by and empowering to our connections, can take a wider view.
The fifth cause is intergenerativity, the experience of life as adaptive. Life is a series of transitions from one stage to another – biologically defined childhood and adolescence, socially defined marriage and retirement, individually defined shifts in outlook and aspiration. Intergenerativity links to connectivity: grandparents participating in the lives of their grandchildren; mentoring, teaching, nurturing; the growth of community; are all expressions of adaptive life.
The sixth cause I characterise as awe. It is the understanding of one’s place in an ecology and the realisation that the human individual neither is nor needs to be the definitive element within that system. Today’s casual pollution is a symptom of an exceptionalist human hubris. Without living in awe of nature we risk teetering from one existential crisis to another, cowering behind the brute force protection of technology.
The existing world order of GDP, careerism and consumption has put itself in conflict with the causes of life. The materialism common to capitalism and communism, the two political systems born in economics, fails to understand or affirm the value of these less measurable things.
A future can be built around systems that not only beat back death, but which foster life. We can envision a society that cherishes connectedness and intergenerativity – through reinforcing local institutions, normalising engagement with rather than alienation from our fellow citizens, through transport solutions that emphasise mobility and through a growing, changing world wide web.
A distrust of bureaucracy and big Government arises from the desire to protect our agency. Just as we currently assess the financial and environmental impacts of new rules, new systems should be tested against their ability to foster freedom, and to support rather than hinder the individual’s ability to realise her hopes.
And in the insistent awe of nature, this future can foster the personal narratives that recognise the diversity available in life, and that there is infinitely more to be achieved than a growing hoard of treasure. The future we deserve should allow individuals to define their world and to succeed within it, understanding that their success is incompatible with rather than dependent on the failure of the people and environment with whom their world is shared.
- Gunderson and Pray, 2007
- Recall the mafia narrative of family in ‘The Godfather’