The question of what contributes to quality of life has been on my mind as I navigate through a period of economic uncertainty. The problem is actually quite subtle.
Dominant American attitudes seem to maintain that some degree of financial success is a necessary condition for quality of life. Financial security is certainly important, but quality of life––in a broad sense––depends on much more than finances. More importantly, how we define quality of life has implications for how we relate with our natural environment.
“Success” and “Successful”
American culture seems to hold that quality of life is the prize earned by financially successful people, rather than a common good. But what is success?
The notion of success is inextricably tied up with expectations, which are shaped both socially and individually. Because social definitions of success are external to us and widespread, they have a bewitching power. They feel real. Ultimately, however, the criteria of success are arbitrary. Success just means attaining a goal. Without the context of a goal, “successful” has no meaning.
By default, our modern societies tend to use financial assets as measures of success. Money is powerful, and quite necessary for participation in the economies that sustain most of our activities. Those of us who are not affluent need to seek out sources of income, but we do well to remember that quality of life is determined by more than having money.
As a former academic, I might add that the same holds for notions of success that are based on fame: number of publications, demand for public speaking, professional honors, social media followers, and so forth. One can have all of these in abundance and still have a poor quality of life. In my experience, academics are often imbalanced by the demands on their time. I have met a few academics who seemed genuinely happy with their lives, but they were the exceptions.
Quality of Life as an End Goal
As I navigate new career opportunities and gather information for my Cottage Eco website, I find myself returning repeatedly to the problem of ends and means. What are the ends––or goals––of my current effort to reinvent myself? And what are the means that I can use to achieve my chosen goals? A monetary measure of success is not really an end, but only a means for improving quality of life. Both ends and means need to be chosen deliberately.
Cottage Eco was born out of a desire to call a spade a spade––to identify the gap between the promises made regarding modern industrial life and the actual quality of life for most people. Much of the problem is an ongoing belief in false premises: 1) that economic prosperity can be achieved by all who work hard, and 2) that economic prosperity will satisfy people’s needs for quality of life. The first is simply not true today, and the second is only partly true.
Daniel Mays on Quality of Life
Daniel Mays, author of The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, expresses the nature of the problem with elegant precision:
“What matters most in this world? What defines our success? What are the underlying characteristics of a good life, well lived? How we answer these questions determines how we engage the world and what legacy we leave behind for future generations. Unfortunately, industrial society answers these questions almost exclusively in monetary terms, alienating us from the values and emotions that define us as human.
The growth-based consumptive economy of the current era has affected all aspects of society––polluting our environment, uprooting our communities, eroding our rural landscapes, corrupting our politics, and isolating each of us as individual units of labor and consumption in an economic machine that siphons money from the many engaged in hands-on work to the few engaged in monetary manipulation. Breaking out of this progression toward ecological and cultural exhaustion is no small task, but it is the grave responsibility of each and every one of us if we are to thrive as a species. It requires only basic math to understand that indefinite growth on a finite planet is unsustainable.”
He then goes on to suggest that a first step out of this trap is to identify the ingredients of a satisfying, fulfilling life. Citing Allan Savory’s ideas, he lists four categories that are more central than money in helping people achieve quality of life: 1) Physical Health, Comfort, and Safety, 2) Meaningful Relationships, 3) Personal Growth, and 4) Societal Contribution. (See pp. 219-221)
Cottage Eco and Quality Relationships
After a period of social isolation, my work on the Cottage Eco website has already stimulated much personal growth (through all the reading I am doing), led to cultivation of meaningful relationships, and given me hope that I will find new ways to contribute to society. My quality of life is improving, even though my financial circumstances have yet to improve. (Thank you, readers!)
Human society remains confused about priorities. We all need money to survive, but to thrive we must attend to the quality of our relationships. These relationships include those that we have with our fellow animals and the rest of the natural environment. We, of all animals, have the most power to nurture life.
Because lifestyles and economic choices both determine the quality of our human-environment relations, I am using the Cottage Eco blog to discuss both. Work and life are not so separate.
If we define our quality of life more by our healthy relationships than by what we own, we will be much better stewards of this miraculous, living planet.
Rather than defining success relative to an individual’s finances, we can think in terms of the totality of the culture that we sustain, and the overall quality of life of those who dwell within it.
When our ecosystems are healthy and stable, when our economy affords everyone the tools for a high quality of life, that will be a true success.
Further reading: E. F. Schumacher wrote eloquently about these issues in his classic and enduringly relevant book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. See, especially, Chapter 4, “Buddhist Economics.”