The Good Life: Consumerism Is So Last Century

In growing numbers, Americans are rediscovering that the real meaning of the good life doesn't come from things they can buy but from things they can feel.

What is the good life? The good life is to be a good neighbor, to consider your neighbor yourself. —K. Vishwanathan, Kerala, India

Glacier Circle cohousing
Glacier Circle Senior Community, the nation's first elder cohousing. Photo by Neshama Abraham Paiss

Living the good life is a subject that has been featured often in YES! stories since the magazine's first issue, for the simple reason that this issue is so central to human culture.

In the first book I wrote with David Suzuki, back in 1999, we had a chapter called "Complex Pleasures" that tried to analyze what it is that we humans really want. Today there are even more studies, polls and surveys that attempt to answer this most compelling of questions. And what they've uncovered has been a little surprising, in that it has been repeatedly demonstrated that once basic human needs for shelter and food are met, people are not made very much happier by even vastly larger quantities of material goods. In fact, decently nourished villagers in India or U.S. blue-collar workers are often just as happy with their lives as society matrons and rich businessmen.

What makes people unhappy is easier to gauge: feeling too isolated, unappreciated, insecure (both materially and socially), or unloved will do it. But people are also miserable if they have to try to function in a society that is inegalitarian, makes no sense, and over which they have no influence.

What people thrive on is love and intimacy within a family; stability within societies where the gap between the rich and poor, as well as the gap between people of high and low status is not extreme; and a feeling of usefulness and worth within both family and society. We don't get those things by buying goods, but rather by participating with each other, helping each other, even, dare we say, giving to each other. As Bill McKibben has often put it, when you help someone out, the pleasure is mostly yours. That seems to be true because it's actually the way we're made.

The reason David and I called the chapter "Complex Pleasures," is because immature beings, like babies, are made happy by simple pleasures: a bottle or a dry diaper. But mature beings need a good deal more. Many YES! contributors, among them a well-known champion of simple living, Vicki Robin, have noted that most young mammals, for example, need enormous amounts of food and warmth, while they later do not require as much. Mature beings not only demand less, but can produce something new out of themselves--fruit, children, creations--that creates a positive future for their entire group. As we grow up, we learn to share, to give, even to sacrifice; to find joy in community and also in creating ideas, which are very different kinds of  "happiness" from eating, sleeping or consuming any material good.

The consumer society that we have developed has to keep its members in a state of perpetual infancy because if consumers ever become satisfied with their material lives, they will cease to play the game of expanding desire that keeps the perpetual economy going. The fact that we're surrounded by so much advertising is, in a perverse way, a positive sign. It means that absolutely desperate (and very expensive) efforts have to made to stimulate human material desires, which naturally fade as we mature. In this context, it's not so surprising that as the simple-pleasures model has proliferated, so has the complex one. In fact, over the last 10 years, thousands of movements involving millions of people working for truly positive futures have spontaneously sprung up around the world.

YES! has been devoted to documenting these positive examples, and in the second book David Suzuki and I wrote, Good News for a Change, we managed to isolate what real sustainability is and how to recognize it. There are five criteria that are repeated, independently and through both space and time, all over the world. These are: imitating nature; using democratic organization; remaining humble; staying flexible; and setting very high goals. When these are present, you know you're onto something.

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