"It's a story about us -- people -- 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." This is how Tim Jackson, the UK government's sustainable development commissioner, summed up what drives us and our economy. It's a view that has been emerging from fields within economics, neuroscience and philosophy.
The LSE's Professor Richard Layard has found that people in the West over the last 50 years have become richer, have longer holidays, travel more, live longer and are healthier. But they are no happier. He has an incredible amount of data to back up the claim too. It's a shocking fact that should drive our public policy debates but does not.
According to the Buddhist atheist scholar Stephen Batchelor there are two fundamental dimensions to our existence, 'to have' and 'to be' which reveal two distinct attitudes to life. With 'having', life is experienced as a horizontal, as we attempt to be fulfilled by what we amass, we chase an ever-receding horizon of additional newer things. 'Being' is experienced in its vertical depths as those things that are more meaningful, fulfilling and longer lasting. The more you chase the ever-receding horizon the further the vertical fades into the distance.
Those who are poor tend to have greater increases of happiness from each increase in wealth. However, after our basic material needs are met, any further increases in material wealth fail to bring significant increases in happiness. This is because it's not a matter of what you have, but what you have in relation to what others have. The problem is that addiction to status must have its losers. You can only have higher status relative to someone else being lower in the ranking. There is the additional problem of habituation. Once you reach an increased level of material wealth, you very quickly become used to it and it is no longer satisfactory. You need another fix. Basically it's a rat race keeping up with the Jones'.
What makes us happy? Across almost every society for which there is data, human beings derive most happiness from relationships, community, a sense of purpose and job security. Given this, could the recession provide an opportunity for us to re-balance 'having' and 'being'. Could we 'have' less and 'be' more? Will the shift towards access rather than ownership, to borrowing, renting and sharing rather than acquisition, increase our possibilities for 'being'? Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, suggest in their new book that a new Collaborative Consumption is helping to build and strengthen communities and trust between individuals. Botsman tells the story of an older couple that participate in a land share scheme in the UK. They allow a group of local young people access to their garden to grow food, and in return receive some of the vegetables grown. But the most rewarding part for the couple is that their neighbors have become new friends.
It's a mammoth task to re-direct our economies towards something more human-centered, it means having to go against many attitudes bred into us from a very early age and reinforced throughout our lives. So how do we wean ourselves off a consumption-fueled economy? We don't have all the answers, but we have two compelling reasons to try, the avoidance of climate chaos and the chance of longer-term happiness.
As Batchelor suggests: "Instead of living in order 'to have' more abundantly, it is necessary to live in order 'to be' more abundantly."