How much is enough?

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book called How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky.

Although very dense in places on economic theory and philosophy it’s certainly worth a read for the contribution it makes to some of the general issues floating about in the zeitgeist, such as James Wallman’s Stuffocation and the relative worth of GDP and happiness indices.

One of the central themes of the book is the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and how capitalism has fundamentally shifted our relationship with money. Keynes had written in the 1930s that capitalism was a force for good to raise standards of living, but he (as it turns out incorrectly) anticipated that people would reach a level of satiety, or ‘enoughness’ after which capitalism will have done its job. However, uncontrolled levels of acquisitiveness have been unleashed instead on a very much more secular society than Keynes’ and one that is no longer held in check by religious ideals about the relative worth of money.

“Capitalism it is now clear, has no spontaneous tendency to evolve into something nobler. Left to itself, the machinery of want-generation will carry on churning, endlessly and pointlessly.”

It has been occurring to me for sometime that as well as contributing to increased levels of depression there is something morally reprehensible about being discouraged to be dissatisfied with what we already have when many of us have more than enough to live well on already, it smacks of gorging at the trough.

One of the reasons the book suggests that we don’t appreciate what we’ve got is that, “the standard of living which people measure their relative material well-being against is a national not a global one.” All those trite Facebook quotes about Westerners being among the richest 1% in the world it seems are true, but as we don’t look to sub-Saharan Africa for our comparisons, only the Joneses down the road in doing that we lose sight of what we actually have in pursuit of what we have not.

After much research and discussion of how we arrived at this state of affairs the book goes on to list seven elements of the good life:
Harmony with nature
Personality or autonomy
Security
Friendship
Leisure
Respect
Health
It was in particular the leisure aspect of the list that I found engaging, coming as it does from James Wallman’s angle of choosing experiences over buying things (if only because experiences are harder to compare as they’re harder to place a monetary value on). The authors’ definition of leisure doesn’t exactly mean sitting on the sofa and not working; the phrase can include working, as long as it’s not wage-slave working and it’s doing something you enjoy. It also encompasses the idea of ‘purposiveness without purpose’ or doing something for its own ends rather than specifically trying to achieve something.
There are overlaps with mindfulness here – getting into the ‘zone’ with an activity so much that you lose yourself in it and forget about goals and targets and just enjoy the thing for its own sake. This is one of the reasons that Facebook surfing is bad and why hobbies are good.It’s also one of the things I really struggle with, I have to do things for a purpose or an outcome, I have to feel busy and productive and I’ve latterly discovered that this isn’t good for peace of mind.

So, here are some of the activities I can do with my leisure time in order to engage in purposiveness without purpose:
Limit tv viewing. Ensure that anything watched are programmes that add value to my life or education in someway. TV encourages passive receptiveness.
Read more and make a greater attempt to assimilate the information. Talk about interesting topics learned with others. I had thought this might turn me into a dinner-table bore, but I’m discovering that’s it’s a great way to get people chatting about things that interest them and wider issues.
Keep up with my lifelong hobby and love of documenting the everyday. I’ve kept scrapbooks and diaries on and off since I was 12. This can continue to be done for its own enjoyment, as can my enjoyment of calligraphy. I don’t have to justify it to anyone.
Take up an engrossing hobby such as embroidery. I used to do cross stitch years ago and it is the closest I’ve ever come to being fully mindful.
Sit in the garden and enjoy the stillness without thinking that there are jobs to be done. There is time to sit and be still; it is these moments that are remembered not the list of jobs that need doing.
Write more, it doesn’t matter if no-one else reads it or it doesn’t get published. It’s the process that’s important.
Listen more to people and actively try to connect more with the people around me and the community in which I live.
This last one’s going to be tough, but find a job more fulfilling than the one I’ve got and more family-friendly. I’d like to have more time to do voluntary work and work in a less conventional office-based way.

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