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Can declining living standards fuel growth?

I’m using the word “growth” provocatively and somewhat ironically, here. For so long the need for economic growth has gone largely unchallenged in the political mainstream. But more and more studies from around the world are showing that “once the basics of life are provided, rising overall incomes do not achieve one jot of extra contentment,” according to an editorial in today’s Guardian. Is there an opportunity within this economic depression for a real spurt in collective contentment and spiritual growth?

“Before the crisis…the argument that general wellbeing should trump GDP was growing strongly from rich evidential soil – to the point where it caught David Cameron’s eye.” (Guardian) The Government started measuring wellbeing alongside other indicators, and the first results, which were published yesterday, show that “three-quarters of us…rate our level of well-being at seven out of ten or higher” (Metro). Meanwhile, economic figures based on the Chancellor’s statement this week suggested that ‘middle Britain’s’ living standards are set to decline for a full 13 years – something that is unprecedented. Is there any correlation between these two news items? Does this week’s combination of economic and wellbeing reports indicate that we are entering a phase of what E F Schumacher called ‘Buddhist economics’, with the nation’s aim being to “obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption”?

I confess that I am not someone who finds happiness or wellbeing very interesting or inspiring. My girlfriend booked tickets, a couple of months ago, for us to go to the wonderful Conway Hall to see Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard give a talk about happiness. This was hosted by the Action for Happiness campaign, which is also mentioned in many of today’s reports on happiness. Just the thought of going to this talk made me somewhat depressed and irritable! As I listened, though, I found myself in a better and better mood – as though I had stepped into a palpable atmosphere of meaning and significance. It was essentially a Dharma talk – and a good one – and I found it hugely satisfying and enjoyable. I also found it helpful that, instead of referring to happiness throughout, Matthieu Ricard referred instead to fulfilment or meaning in life, something I chime with much more fully, and something that I think my Dharma life has given me.

Don’t get me wrong – I know that our economic travails are causing real suffering. I only have to think of my brother and his girlfriend, who has been trying to get a job for a long time, trying to bring up my eighteen month old nephew on a limited budget – one story amongst millions. However, I do think the unprecedented economic situation we find ourselves in brings with it a real opportunity for a new kind of society to emerge – one with much more sustainable values at its heart. If we are to grasp the opportunity we will need to collectively challenge some of the values upon which our society is currently based – particularly the ingrained assumption that someone who consumes more is better off than someone who consumes less. And we will need to be much more radical in living and communicating a Zen life of beauty and simplicity, as well as engaging with society around us to enable others to do the same.

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One Response to “Can declining living standards fuel growth?”

  1. Maitreyaraja says:

    Hi Manjusiha,

    Thanks very much for this interesting piece. I was just emailing a friend of mine today who works for LILI (Low Impact Living Initiative) about the Blair years. You have articulated something about the simple life and contemporary society which I would have struggled to put into words. I’ll send a link of your site to my friend.

    All the best with the new Journal,

    Maitreyaraja

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