The contemporary world has, until recently at least, been defined by a ‘bigger, better, faster, more’ ethos that has underpinned society since at least the middle of the 1800s. Does it work? Is it serving us well? Or is it time for a new approach? Geraint Jones explores...
Tucked away in the folds of the Brecon Beacons in South Wales is a modest organic smallholding on which there stands a tiny cottage. Living there alone is a middle-aged woman (we’ll call her Bethan; she’s not prepared to give up her anonymity) who scratches out a meagre living off the land without almost all of the creature comforts and modern amenities to which we have become so accustomed.
It sounds tough, unenviable. Or at least it does until you hear her own assessment of her lifestyle: “This way of life is my offering. It is not predatory. It is respectful, rewarding, joyful. It can be a pattern for others.”
Bethan declares her needs to be simple: “I live on little more than £5,000 a year and yet I have in abundance what a human being truly needs: a warm shelter, real food, clean water, family, friends, silence and wildlife. I have found my tribe.”
No mention of dishwashers, automatic washing machines, HD-ready surround sound televisions, cars, computers, multi-featured mobile phones or any of the other paraphernalia usually deemed so essential to modern life.
Instead, having chosen to live this way, Bethan is clear about what really matters to the quality of her life. It seems that the absence of material possessions and comforts actually makes her happier. How can this be? It certainly appears to put her at odds with the vast majority of her contemporaries who appear to take exactly the opposite view, namely that life is not tolerable without these creature comforts.
It raises a host of questions. What do we truly need in life? How do you define wealth? Are we missing a trick in our relentless pursuit of material possessions?
The idea that we have somehow become detached from what is really important and what is essential to our contentment and peace of mind is nothing new. Writers, religious leaders and politicians have argued this down the ages.
Two hundred years ago poet William Wordsworth took time out from contemplating daffodils to offer this critique of the materialism of his age.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
Apposite as this is, it was written in 1807, before the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain and created the foundations for our modern consumer society.
Now there are signs that the rampant consumerism of recent decades may be coming to a shuddering halt, and that we are being forced to reappraise our ideas on life and the pursuit of happiness.
Featuring last year on the Thought for the Day slot on Radio Four’s Today programme, Christian academic and broadcaster Dr Elaine Storkey argued that the economic slowdown has triggered a conflict between what she called the ‘economics of growth’ and the ‘economics of thrift and contraction’.
The economic rules by which we have lived since Wordsworth's time are based upon the maximisation of consumption: growth and expansion are good, whereas recession and contraction are undesirable. Yet we are now being told that contraction is required of us. With global warming threatening our long term future, and energy costs going through the roof, it is suddenly a good thing to consume less. Similarly, with food and consumer goods going up in cost, and credit getting tougher to obtain, it is in our interest to cut back.
Dr Storkey advocates the ‘economics of enough’ as a solution. Being content with what we have, instead of always desiring something we perceive to be better, is the way to deal with the hard times ahead, she says.
Buddhist teaching offers a similar path. Happiness can only be achieved, it says, by the process of letting go. The pursuit of happiness is a contradiction… happiness can be found only by the abandonment of self and of desire.
Why do we have this desire to own bigger and better houses, cars, stereos, computers et al? Do we really see the possibility of happiness in them or do we simply want to own more and better stuff than our neighbours, friends and colleagues?
The weight of evidence is against us. Most studies on human happiness have found that there is actually no correlation between material wealth and contentment. In fact, it’s often the reverse. People who have little and, crucially, live with others in a similar situation, are often happier than those from more affluent societies.
These ideas are so far from what most of us have been brought up to believe that they may seem preposterous and impossible to put into practice. The trick is to start small and work your way up.
Try listing all your material possessions and asking yourself how many of them you actually need. Clothes, for instance. We all have too many clothes. Go through them and work out how many have been unworn in the last 12 months. The result might surprise you. Do we really need something we haven't put on our backs for a year?
Then look around your home. How much of all the electronic wizardry with which we decorate our lives actually makes us happy? Do we actually need a more powerful computer or a smaller, sleeker mp3 player or a mobile phone that takes pictures and looks like something from Star Trek? How many times do we desire something, tell ourselves that we really need it and then, when we have it, move on to the next object of desire. Desire, you could argue, by its very nature, can never be satisfied. Try letting go of it.
You might then find that the old saying ‘it is better to give than receive’ may well be true. Give away a few of your clothes, for example. Charity shops are almost always keen to receive them – and it actually feels good to do this, better often than the ‘thrill‘ of buying new ones.
True, a few charity shop donations and a bit of self-denial on the High Street are not going to move mountains, but they might induce a slight shift in mindset, they might nudge a window ajar onto another way of looking at things. After all, what have you got to lose?