Yearning for Balance

In 1995, the Merck Family Fund commissioned The Harwood Group, a public issues research and innovations firm, to study citizen perspectives on the issue of consumption. The study began with four focus groups, conducted in Dallas, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Frederick, Maryland, with Americans from all walks of life. Harwood then conducted a national public opinion survey framed by the concerns raised in the focus groups.

This survey, taken in February 1995, provides a statistical portrait of how Americans are thinking about a wide range of issues connected to consumption, the environment, and the values and priorities of our society. What follows is adapted from the report issued by The Harwood Group, entitled Yearning for Balance.

Watch television for a day and you will get a clear picture of what Americans supposedly want in life: new cars, a big house, stylish clothes, the latest gadgets--and of course, fresh breath. Yet when Americans are asked to describe what they are looking for in life, their aspirations rarely center on material goods.

When people were asked to rate what would make them more satisfied with their lives, the responses were striking: non-material aspirations consistently outranked material ones by huge margins. Only small fractions said they would be significantly more satisfied with life if they had a nicer car, bigger house, or nicer things in their home.

But a majority of Americans would be much more satisfied if they were able to spend more time with family and friends (66 percent rating 8 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10) and if there was less stress in their lives (56 percent rating 8 or higher). Also, nearly half (47 percent) would be much more satisfied if they felt they were doing more to make a difference in their community.
Despite the cost in time and stress, many people say they feel stuck on a treadmill--striving for material goals that seem ever-harder to attain.
"You have to work harder in order to stay the same as what you were before or get ahead," complained a Frederick man.

But others question whether we need to be pushing so hard, or if we are choosing to do so. Much of that feeling of wanting more seems to come from comparing ourselves to others. Another Frederick man said, "Don't let the Joneses get you down. ... You know, if the Joneses get a new car, I've got to go out and buy one." He added wryly, "The Joneses are killing me."

Perhaps surprisingly, then, fully 70 percent of survey respondents said they are satisfied with their personal economic situation. Most focus group participants agree that money and possessions are not the main things lacking in their lives.

"We have an abundance of most everything," said an Indianapolis man. What was heard instead is that people seem to yearn for things money cannot buy: more time, less stress, a sense of balance. Said another Indianapolis man, "You find out that the materialistic things aren't as important as your families."

A Society at Odds with Our Values

When they look at the condition of American life today, people from all walks of life--rich and poor, men and women, all ages, all races--reach a remarkably similar conclusion: things are seriously out of whack. People describe a society at odds with itself and its own most important values. They see their fellow Americans growing increasingly atomized, selfish, and irresponsible; they worry that our society is losing its moral center.

When people are asked to compare the values they apply as guiding principles in their own lives with the values that drive the rest of society, the gaps are striking (see graph). Huge majorities of Americans cite responsibility, family life, and friendship as key guiding principles for themselves, with more than 85 percent of survey respondents rating those values at 8 or higher on a 10-point scale.

Yet respondents believe that their fellow Americans do not share these priorities: fewer than half believe that responsibility, family life, or friendship rate 8 or higher for "most people in our society." Conversely, people feel that most Americans are more strongly guided by prosperity and wealth than they are themselves.

These gaps reveal a dissonance in American life--a divergence between how people view their own priorities and those of the rest of society. Interestingly, those surveyed do not feel the same kind of dissonance regarding other values, such as financial security and career success. Survey respondents seem to be saying that financial security is something all Americans need, but that our society's focus on wealth for its own sake is out of sync with their values.

In our society's rush to embrace such values as freedom, financial security, and pleasure, people seem to be saying another set of vitally important values &shyp; including responsibility, family life, and friendship--is being squeezed out.

Too Much Focus on Material Things

Focus group participants viewed this tension between their own priorities and those of our society as underlying many of the other concerns--from crime to family breakdown to the lack of community. When pressed on their views, people insist they are talking about a single core problem: materialism. Fully 95 percent of survey respondents characterized "most" of their fellow Americans as materialistic.
As a Frederick man described it, "We spend so much time rat-racing around, working our fool heads off, trying to get all those material things." A Los Angeles man saw it as "the lust for wealth and power that ...we're taught to worship."

An Indianapolis woman linked the desire to have material things to crime: "[Crime] goes with the competitiveness also. They know they can sell the drugs for the money and get what they want." Others connect materialism, greed, and selfishness to such problems as family breakdown and the loss of community. A Frederick man explained: "Things have become so important to us that things, and the acquisition of things, run our lives and our relations with others."

People's criticism of our materialistic society extends to behavior as well as attitudes. In the survey, 82 percent agreed that most of us buy and consume far more than we need. People seem particularly concerned about what they see as a tendency to want everything now rather than waiting or saving for it; 91 percent agreed that the "buy now, pay later" attitude causes many of us to consume more than we need.

People seem particularly distressed at the degree of materialism they see in America's children and youth. Indeed, 86 percent of those surveyed agreed that "today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming things."

Despite these concerns, Americans are ambivalent in their views on materialism. This ambivalence should not be confused with indifference; people feel strongly, but they are torn between opposing points of view. While most people in the survey believe we buy and consume too much, just over half of those surveyed also agreed that "material wealth is part of what makes this country great". An Indianapolis man asked, "Why should a person live in a shack when he can afford a house?"
For good or ill--and people clearly believe it is both &shyp; materialistic attitudes and behavior are seen as pervasive in our society. In the survey, 89 percent agreed that buying and consuming is "the American way."

The tension between this pervasive emphasis on consumption and the values people actually profess to care about has become the elephant in the living room of American life--the phenomenon which we all seem to know is there, yet is so big we are afraid to talk about it.

Yet, when Americans are asked what is driving so many of our society's troubles, they say that our values are out of whack. A Frederick man put it this way: "I think we're at the point where we value things more than we value people. And the relationships, the relations that people used to have among each other's broken down."

Ready to Talk About Changing

People's readiness at least to consider real changes in their lifestyles is evident in the survey. The graph on this page shows people's responses to a list of possible actions Americans could take to reduce the amount we consume and the level of materialism in our society.

But when it comes to actually making that change happen, a number of obstacles arise.
One barrier standing before people is a difficulty imagining how such a change could happen &shyp; beyond their own individual choices and households. Individual change is easy to envisage. But the problem of materialism is as much a collective as an individual one. And yet people cannot seem to describe how a more collective kind of change could take place.

In a fragmented, atomized society, people are unsure where and how to begin; they seem fearful that if they act, others will not join them. A Frederick man described the sense of paralysis: "As an individual you don't really know what can be done about it, and how it can be fixed."

There is a real tension embedded here--rooted in a sense of ambivalence about how much we want and how much we need. As a Frederick woman said, "I don't need it all and I know I don't need it, but it's so hard to let go of it."

Implications For Moving Ahead

The challenge now is to find ways for people to create a public conversation around the issues of consumption, materialism, and the environment that can lead to real change. Here are five principles:

1. People want to talk about values. Americans said in the survey and focus groups that they share a deep and abiding concern about the core values driving our society. Citizens are not ready to be lectured on consumption, but they are ready to be engaged.

2. Children and future generations are a crucial entry point. Every time children or future generations were mentioned in the focus groups, interest and engagement in the conversation perked up. Children's values and future are at stake, and people are trying, unsuccessfully, to envision a better world for their kids.

3. Tap the yearning for balance. The frenzied, excessive quality of American life today has left people yearning for balance. They feel that an essential side of life centered on family, friends, and community has been pushed aside by the dominant ethic of "more, more, more."

4. People need to work through their ambivalence. While condemning greed and excess, people understandably prefer wealth to poverty and wish to live in some degree of material comfort. Also, there is a strong belief in freedom of choice and an aversion to telling or being told how to live. Any public effort must offer people room to explore what they think and are willing to do. Only then will people be able to tap their desire for balance.

5. People are looking for a sense of possibility. People associate public discourse today with acrimony, and gridlock; most do not want any part of that. But when they hear each other describe common concerns about misplaced values, children, and the environment, and have a chance to explain their longing for a more balanced life, a spark appears. Blowing that spark into a significant flame will require demonstrating a sense of movement--celebrating small successes, telling stories about where and how the ground is shifting, and helping people to discover a role for themselves in making it happen.

For more information, contact the Merck Family Fund, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 500, Takoma Park, MD 20912. tel: 301/270-2970
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