Beyond the Economic Treadmill and Toward True Well-being

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Beyond the Economic Treadmill and Toward True Well-being

Michael Abrams

Life Satisfaction for Various Groups

-Forbes magazine's ‘‘richest Americans'' 5.8
-Pennsylvania Amish 5.8
-Inughuit (Inuit people in northern Greenland) 5.8
-African Maasai 5.7
-Swedish probability sample 5.6
-International college-student sample (47 nations in 2000) 4.9
-Illinois Amish 4.9
-Calcutta slum dwellers 4.6
-Fresno, California, homeless 2.9
-Calcutta pavement dwellers (homeless) 2.9

Note. Respondents indicated their agreement with the statement, "You are satisfied with your life'' using a scale from 1 (complete disagreement) to 7 (complete agreement); 4 is a neutral rating.

Source: Diener, Ed & Martin E.P. Seligman, "Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being," Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol 5, Issue 1, 2004

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By any conventional logic, the table above makes no sense. How can the Pennsylvania Amish--a group that generally aspires towards a relatively simple lifestyle--have, as a group, attained an average happiness level on par with that of the 400 wealthiest individuals in one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet? And how can a group of aboriginals in Greenland have managed to accomplish the same thing?

The unstated premise of our society is that all of us are born at some level on a socio-economic ladder. Our prime directive is that we must dedicate a substantial part of our waking hours and efforts to climb to higher and higher steps on that ladder. At any step on the ladder we can look down to the comparatively diminished lives we had on the lower steps. And at the very top we--or our descendants--will have attained that perfect Nirvana, the frictionless existence that comes in tandem with virtually limitless wealth.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy



Except it ain't so. While America's wealthiest certainly attain a high level of happiness, it can hardly be said to be off the chart. Further, it would appear that very different kinds of groups, such as the Amish and the Inughuit, manage to effortlessly reach the top of our "ladder"---and do so even without our relentless drive toward an ever higher material standard of living. What do they know that we don't?

Manfred Max-Neef, the Chilean ecological economist, reminds us that the spectrum from penury to wealth cannot be reduced to a single dimension. According to his Matrix of Human Needs, there are some nine distinct categories of needs: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Leisure, Creation, Identity, and Freedom. Unlike Maslow, he did not view his list of basic needs as forming a hierarchy by which the attainment of some level depended on the attainment of all of the previous levels. In his view--once our Subsistence needs have been met--the satisfaction of any particular need is independent of the satisfaction of any of the others.

Poverty, in Max-Neef's view, is not monolithic. Since the realization of our full humanity requires the fulfillment all of these needs, the failure to satisfy any of them constitutes its own particular kind of poverty. And it should be clear that, after our Subsistence needs have been met, the satisfaction of none of these other needs is ultimately circumscribed by the extent of one's material possessions--or by the size of one's bank account.

The trajectory of whole societies reflects this principle. Over 1950-2004, real income in the US tripled (rising from about $12,000 to about $37,000 in constant 2000 dollars) while the percentage of Americans who described themselves as ‘very happy' has remained virtually constant at about 32%. If we look at the nations of the world, after only $10,000-$15,000/year per capita there is little or no relationship between per capita income and quality of life. In their recent book The spirit level: Why greater equality makes society stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show that, across nations, a wide variety of social dysfunction--including drug abuse, obesity and teenage births--correlate well with a society's degree of inequality, and not--as might be supposed--with its average level of wealth or destitution.

The materialistic treadmill that we are on--both as individuals and as societies--turns out to be a dead end. It makes us no happier, and in the process is laying waste to the natural capital upon which our real well-being ultimately depends. To the extent that civilization has a future it will depend on the transition to another mode of living, one in which our well-being--both as individuals and as societies--is the overriding goal, and not any of its economic proxies.

Michael Abrams is a Research Associate for Empowerment Works: A Sustainability Think Tank and an adjunct professor at Seminole State College. He is working on a second Master's at Goddard College, where his focus is on societal quality of life. He can be reached at

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