How would you define a good life? It’s a bafflingly tough question. An even tougher one: does the economy we have today value such a life? Does it help us create one?
Here’s what I see when I look not just at the surface, but deep inside the heart of the economy today:
Instead of an “energy industry,” I see a resource addiction that saps money and preserves self-destructive expectations. I see, instead of food and education “industries,” an obesity epidemic and a debt-driven education crisis. Instead of a pharmaceutical industry, I see a new set of mental and physical discontents, like rates of suspiciously normally “abnormal” mental illnesses and drugs whose lists of “side effects” are longer than the Magna Carta. Instead of a “media industry,” I see news that actually misinforms instead of enlightening – rusting the beams of democracy – and entertainment that merely titillates.
In short, I see an outcomes gap: a yawning chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between what our economy produces and what you might call a meaningfully well-lived life, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia.
The economy we have today will let you chow down on a supersize McBurger, check derivative prices on your latest smartphone, and drive your giant SUV down the block to buy a McMansion on hypercredit. It’s a vision of the good life that I call (a tiny gnat standing on the shoulders of the great Amartya Sen) hedonic opulence. And it’s a conception built in and for the industrial age: about having more. Now consider a different vision: maybe crafting a fine meal, to be accompanied by local, award-winning microbrewed beer your friends have brought over, and then walking back to the studio where you’re designing a building whose goal is nothing less than rivaling the Sagrada Familia. That’s an alternate vision, one I call eudaimonic prosperity, and it’s about living meaningfully well. Its purpose is not merely passive, slack-jawed “consuming” but living: doing, achieving, fulfilling, becoming, inspiring, transcending, creating, accomplishing – all the stuff that matters the most. See the difference? Opulence is Donald Trump. Eudaimonia is the Declaration of Independence.
Yesterday, pundits and talking heads believed this crisis was just a garden-variety, workaday crash. Today, people like Tyler Cowen and I have called it a Great Stagnation. But here’s what I believe it might just be called tomorrow, when the history books have been written, and the debates concluded: a Eudaimonic Revolution. A sweeping, historic transformation in what we imagine a good life to be, and how, why, where, and when we pursue it.
Though it harks back to antiquity, eudaimonia’s a smarter, sharper, wiser, wholer, well, richer conception of prosperity. And deep down, while it might be hard to admit, I’d bet we all know that our current habits are leaving us – have left us – not merely financially and fiscally broken, but, if not intellectually, physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually empty, then, well, probably at least just a little bit unhealthy. Eudaimonic prosperity, in contrast, is about mastering a new set of habits: igniting the art of living meaningfully well. An active conception of prosperity, it’s concerned not with what one has, but what one is capable of. Here’s how I’d contrast Eudaimonia with its belching, wheezing industrial age predecessor:
Living, (working, and playing) not just having. Where the pursuit of opulence is predicated on having more, bigger, cheaper, eudaimonia is a more nuanced, complex conception of a good life: it’s about whether or not the pursuit of mere stuff actually translates into living, working, and playing meaningfully better in human terms.
Better, not just more. The key word is “better” – and where opulence asks, “Did you get the latest car, yacht, gold-plated razor – or are you just a loser?” eudaimonia asks, “Did any of that stuff make you meaningfully better – smarter, fitter, grittier, more empathic, wiser? Or are you just (yawn) a pawn in the tired, predictable game called ‘the pursuit of diminishing returns to hyperconsumption’: the game that’s rigged by hedge-fund bots against you?”
Becoming, not just being. If eudaimonia’s about living, working, and playing better, not just having more, well, Houston, we have a problem. Economic “growth” as you and I know it is probably fundamentally inadequate to tell us much about it, because how we measure growth is just about stuff. But measures of “happiness” don’t cut it either, because eudaimonia is more complicated than that. The multiplication of eudaimonia can be gauged neither by “GDP,” then, nor by tracking self-reported happiness, nor by basic, simple measures of basic human development, like the HDI – but rather, by understanding whether or not people are becoming their better, wholer, grittier, wiser, fundamentally more accomplished selves. Those real-world measures and tools largely haven’t been invented yet.
Creating and building, not just trading and raiding. The pursuit of eudaimonia most definitely can’t amount to much in economies where those who trade accomplishment and raid societies earn thousands, millions, or billions of times as much as the creators and the builders of those societies – because the result must be an enduring undersupply of the stuff of deep significance, beauty, and meaning. Eudaimonia is constructive in the sense that it’s ignited by those creators and builders – and it always has been.
Depth, not just immediacy. The pursuit of eudaimonia demands depth like Trump needs a better haircut: that is to say, seriously. What does it mean to work, play, and live meaningfully better? It’s not an easy question to answer, and I’m not offering you any easy, pat answers. Rather, the pursuit of eudaimonia itself demands time, space, and room to reflect on questions of gravity and depth, preferably together: deliberatively, associatively, consensually.
Eudaimonia isn’t asceticism, a world where we’re all monks, and the Stuff Police jails you if you buy that 3D TV: plenty of stuff can be eudaimonic. But where opulence is about having stuff that’s envied, desired, and coveted less for what it is than the jumbo-sized, couldn’t miss it if you tried logo, and what it says to people you’re trying probably a little too hard to impress, eudaimonia’s about stuff that’s loved, treasured, adored – because it adds up to living well.
Who are the progenitors of eudaimonia, its spiritual and intellectual forefathers, pioneers, and champions? Richard Florida’s path-breaking idea of creative capital is deeply eudaimonic – because creative capital intensive outputs (like great art, books, gyms, and meals) are expressions of living better. Jane Jacobs, the Galileo of urban economics, whose last book Dark Age Ahead might be said to have been a lament for the loss of eudaimonia, and a warning of the fatality of opulence. Gary Hamel, whose Future of Management is about creating the capacity to live better. And many, many more – from Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments was, in many ways, a challenge to the emergent opulence of the mercantile age, to Roger Martin’s latest book, Fixing the Game. which argues that market performance has superseded meaning and authenticity, to radical innovators like OpenIDEO, Common, and the Acumen Fund, not to mention plodding giants learning to get just a little bit more enlightened, like Nike, Pepsi, and Google.
The recipe for opulence is one of humanity’s great achievements, but the pursuit of opulence probably isn’t one of tomorrow’s great challenges – nor is it one of tomorrow’s imperatives. The recipe for opulence has been more or less pinned down: liberalize, privatize, and insert brow-beating economists staring slack-jawed at poorer countries and exclaiming “If only those poor saps would follow the instructions on the box!!” But the paradox is that even if they did, the world probably can’t afford it: China already consumes about 40% of the world’s copper, and 50% of its cement, iron ore, and coal – but even so, it’s achieved only 10 percent of American levels of opulence (at least as measured by per capita GDP). And even if it were magically able to close that yawning gap, there’s no formula for cleaning up the messes that emerge after the dish of hedonic opulence has been cooked – everything from climate change, to pollution, to inequality that would make Midas blush, to regulatory capture, to fracturing polities, to polarizing societies, and more. Hence, I’d suggest (and unless you’re an investment banker or a zombie overlord, you probably don’t need much convincing): at this point, stuck in a so-called recovery that keeps stalling like a G6 in the vast, howling heart of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, it might be time to take the quantum leap to a smarter, sharper, wiser, and wholer conception of what a good life means.
I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.
So if you take away one point from my mini-manifesto, let it be this:
We are the creators of the future. Because we are the inheritors of a tradition not just older – but more humanistic, constructive, nuanced, dynamic, and perhaps just a little bit wiser – than we know. A good life today? It’s been vacantly reduced to the frenzied sport of buying “consumer goods” – more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now. But the foundational idea that ignited the art of human organization in the first place just might have been eudaimonia – and today’s opulence is just its clumsy, hurried streetside caricature, empty of depth, shorn of meaning, bereft of the essence of what make us human, void of the hunger to create a better world for humanity. Somewhere along the way, sometime on the journey – perhaps for the best of reasons – we lost it. Let’s get it back.
Umair Haque is Director of Havas Media Labs and author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He is ranked one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. Follow him on twitter @umairh.
The original blog post can be found at http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/.