PrintShareE-Mail This Page

The Good Life or the Goods Life?

By Tim Kasser, Associate Professor of Psychology

The Good Life, or the Goods Life?People typically vote for those politicians or laws that they believe will bring the nation to their own particular vision of "the good life." Surveys of Americans, as well as of Knox alumni, consistently show that "the economy" tops the list of important election issues suggesting that many Americans' vision of "the good life" may actually be "the goods life," or a life characterized by economic growth, personal wealth, and the ability to purchase the goods and services we desire.

Interestingly, a growing body of social scientific research suggests that Americans' perennially strong emphasis on the economy, to the exclusion of other issues, may be problematic. For example, scholars have documented how America's remarkable economic growth over the last 50 years has been accompanied by stagnating levels of happiness, the erosion of social relationships, the emission of greenhouse gases into the environment, and the extinction of enormous numbers of species.

My own research, conducted with colleagues around the world, has similarly shown that to the extent people value money, possessions, and wealth, they report lower levels of personal happiness, behave less cooperatively, and live in more ecologically destructive ways.

So, what might constitute a better vision of the good life? One promising model we've been studying is called "Voluntary Simplicity," or VS for short. VS is a lifestyle pursued by 10-15 percent of Americans who reject the "work-spend-work-some-more" consumeristic lifestyle and instead organize their lives around the pursuit of personal growth, close interpersonal relationships, contribution to the community, spirituality, and connection with nature.

With Kirk Brown at Virginia Commonwealth University, I conducted one of the first empirical studies that closely compared Voluntary Simplifiers to mainstream Americans. We found that VSrs, who earned about two-thirds the income of mainstream Americans, were significantly more satisfied with their lives and reported experiencing more pleasant and fewer unpleasant emotions. What's more, the VSrs were also living in a more ecologically sustainable fashion than were mainstream Americans.

If VS sounds interesting to you, here are some ideas about how to have a life that is more "inwardly rich."

1. Reflect on happiness. Our harried lives often leave us little time to pause and reflect on what really makes us happy. Chances are, though, that some reflection will show that bigger houses, fancy cars, and soon-to-be-outdated electronics rarely provide long-lasting satisfaction. This is because such purchases typically reflect one's wants, rather than one's needs. VSrs typically recognize this distinction and realize that the long hours of work and the debt necessary to buy certain luxury items are often not worth it.

2. Focus on intrinsic values. As shown by other research on happy people and those who behave more ecologically sustainably, VSrs orient their lives around three core "intrinsic" values. The first is self-acceptance, which involves understanding who one is and pursuing one's interests. The second is affiliation, which involves being close to one's family and friends. And the third is community feeling, which involves trying to make the broader world a better place. Our study found that VS individuals were more likely than mainstream Americans to highly prioritize these values and that this was the primary reason they were happier and living more sustainably.

3. Bring your intrinsic values into your consumption behavior. As material beings in a material world, VSrs still must consume, but they consume both less and differently. As such, they typically don't buy a lot, and when they do, they look for reusable, durable products that were produced locally and/or in a fair trade, environmentally sustainable way. That is, they buy with their intrinsic values in mind.

4. Look at your investments, too. Similarly, one can invest with one's values in one of the many socially- or ecologically- conscious funds that now exist. Interestingly, these types of funds typically yield returns at least as high, if not higher, than traditional funds.

5. Consider pursuing "time affluence." Research shows that Americans work about 160 hours per year more than 40 years ago, and up to nine weeks per year more than many Europeans. Research we've done shows that Americans' "time poverty" makes it difficult to pursue the intrinsic values that make people happier and to do ecologically sustainable behaviors like recycle, walk, garden, etc. VSrs often therefore strive for "time affluence," recognizing that they usually have "enough" money but not enough time. So consider asking for a longer vacation or shorter work hours next year, rather than taking a bigger raise.

6. Get involved in the community. Research consistently shows that people who volunteer and use their time and money for the "greater good" are more satisfied with their lives. Indeed, many VSrs decide to do less paid work so they can spend more time volunteering in ways that bring them deeper satisfaction.

Knox Psychology Professor Tim Kasser7. Toss out the advertisements. Our culture continually bombards us with messages designed to make us feel like we would be happier if we only owned some things that we don't currently have. These advertisements work in part by creating dissatisfaction with one's present state, an unpleasant experience that the ad suggests can be rectified through consumption. To avoid these downer messages and temptations, many VSrs remove TVs and commercial magazines from their lives.

8. Learn some more. Books such as The American Paradox, The Loss of Happiness in Market Societies, The Overworked American, and The Overspent American all provide fine critiques of consumer society. To learn more about VS, consider The Simple Life, Voluntary Simplicity, Your Money or Your Life, or Simplicity Lessons. And The Simple Living Network and New American Dream Web sites provide a good deal of practical advice.

Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology, has taught at Knox since 1995. He wrote The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press, 2002), co-edited Psychology and Consumer Culture (American Psychological Association, 2004), and has published dozens of scientific articles and book chapters. Professor Kasser teaches about Voluntary Simplicity in the cross-listed American studies/environmental studies class Alternatives to Consumerism. Learn more about Tim Kasser.