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Prioritising the things that really matter

24 Nov 2010 | Mark Williamson


There's a memorable passage in Ian McKewan's book "Saturday" where the protagonist, Henry Perowne, steps into the shower and reflects on a future where our civilisation has crumbled: "The old folk crouching by their peat fires will tell their disbelieving grandchildren of standing naked midwinter under jet streams of hot clean water, of lozenges of scented soaps… and of thick white towels as big as togas, waiting on warming racks".

Last week Lord Young, a government advisor, was forced to resign following his observation that most Britons "had never had it so good". In the aftermath of savage spending cuts and thousands of people staring into the abyss of unemployment, it was a poorly timed and insensitive comment. But, if we look over the last fifty years rather than just the last two, we would surely have to agree with him. In terms of living standards and material wealth, we've reached a point that previous generations could only have dreamed of - and perhaps one that future generations will look back at longingly.

The engine for much of this progress has of course been consumer capitalism, with innovation and wealth creation driven by each of us striving to earn and consume ever more of the vast array of goods and services on offer. If we stop to think about it, most of us recognise that material and financial wealth are just means to an end, not the end in themselves. But we care about them because they are seen as a good proxy for wider social progress - an indicator of how well our lives are going. Presumably then, this economic growth that we pursue relentlessly has indeed been improving our lives, making them better, happier and more fulfilling?

Well no, actually. The shocking fact is that, despite being much wealthier, we're no happier than we were fifty years ago. In fact in Britain the proportion of people who are "very happy" with their lives has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% in 2006, despite the fact that we are three times richer.

How is this possible? Well over that same period our society has become increasingly competitive and selfish, with a culture that encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions above all else. Although our living standards have improved, our growing focus on self-centred materialism has contributed to wider social problems. In the 1960s, 60% of adults said they believed "most people can be trusted". Today the figure is around 30%. We've also seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.

Professor Tim Jackson puts it best: "We're being persuaded to spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, to create impressions that won't last, on people we don't care about".

But all is not lost - it doesn't have to be like this. Material wealth is far from the most important factor in determining whether our lives are happy and fulfilling. The good news is that by focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness, we can live rich, rewarding lives. These things include loving families, close friendships, good self-awareness, strong community ties, doing things for others, keeping active, and having some kind of greater purpose to our lives. None of these ideas are new and we instinctively know their importance. But this 'wisdom of the ages' is now also backed up by psychology research which confirms that these things have a greater impact on our overall well-being than our beauty, possessions or income.

Even mainstream economists have now recognised the widespread disillusion with wealth-creation as the central goal of life. In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy set up an international commission, including Nobel prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to answer the question of how we should measure true societal progress. Their verdict was that it is time to "shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people's well-being".

This in turn has led the British government, along with France, Canada and others, to announce plans to measure our 'subjective well-being', which basically means how happy we feel about different aspects of our lives. This a huge step forward, but we need much more than just measurement. In truth we need a fundamental cultural shift away from self-obsessed, materialistic behaviour towards a more balanced society which values well-being, positive relationships, trust and collaboration.

Recently, three pioneering thinkers have decided to provide a focal point for this cultural shift. Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon have started the Movement for Happiness, which aims to inspire the move to a happier society, by bringing people together from all walks of life to make positive changes in their personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

Humans are inherently social creatures and our sense of self-worth comes largely from comparing ourselves with others. But, when this status comparison is based on wealth it is a 'zero-sum game' and one of the main reasons that increases in GDP fail to lead to increases in happiness. We get wealthier, but we compare ourselves against a higher benchmark - so in effect we're running just to stand still. What's more, evolutionary psychology suggests that the desire for status comparison is universal across all cultures. So rather than trying to dampen our in-built desire to better ourselves, perhaps what we need is a different definition of success to aim for.

I feel this shift is already happening. Instead of defining success in terms of wealth and possessions, more of us are aiming for a new version of success which is about leading a balanced and rewarding life. In this new world, we hope to be materially comfortable but not stuck in a job we hate to pay for things we don't really need; we want to be motivated by careers that have wider social benefit, while also making time for our friends, family, health and other interests. And we want to be comfortable with who we really are and avoid having to project a false image through brands we consume or behaviours we emulate.

By choosing to live in a way that prioritises the things that really matter - including our inner lives, our relationships and our contribution to society - we can be part of this vital shift in societal values. So let's stop aiming for lives filled with riches and focus instead on helping people lead richer lives.

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