This short essay will make two related points. First, that getting pleasure from our experience is a craft and one that we can get better at. And, second, that we as a society should focus on meeting basic needs and then allow people to increase their pleasure by practicing the craft of getting more out of less. The pandemic presents us with an opportunity to change both our daily habits and our social systems with these two insights in mind. When I began writing this, the pandemic had created a moment of quiet and uncertainty, with many faint possible future branching out ahead of us. Since then, we have seen a surge of Black Lives Matter protests in the US and around the world. While the world is certainly not quiet now, in a way, these protests are exactly what this essay is calling for: a turn away from endless proliferation of desires and distractions and towards meeting the basic needs of everyone in our society.
I once saw an earnest tweet begging the universe for a monthly subscription service which simply sent an empty box each month to be filled with things to be taken away without guilt or questions.
It seems that our priorities are all out of whack – even while many of us struggle to access things that we need, most of us somehow also have too much. Too many things. Too much garbage. Too many options. Too much information. The environmental impact of all this is obvious – we have completed exceeded our planet’s ability to adjust to our relentless activity. But beyond this, even in our personal lives, less is often more.
CHOICE – In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz lays out the mental and emotional burden of our ever proliferating options. Choices tax our brain and spawn regrets. You want the freedom to make choices on important issues – but our current society forces us to weigh the merits of a million types of cereal and then restricts our choice where it really matters. To cope with this excess, we settle into routines, picking the same good enough option again and again to avoid the mental cost of choosing. Under the circumstances, this is a wise choice, but using this strategy en masse leads to path dependencies which can become dangerous to the system as a whole.
MONEY – Research shows that the connection between money and happiness breaks down when income exceeds $75 000, give or take. Beyond that, working longer hours and getting raises has no impact on your happiness. And, even more interesting, Daniel Kahneman – perhaps the greatest living psychologist – argues that most of the emotional benefit of money actually derives from its capacity to shelter us from suffering – not from any ability to make us happy. Divorces, illnesses and disasters still reduce the happiness of wealthy people, but the impact is greatly reduced because they are able to get themselves back on their feet more quickly. A better society would find ways to help those who aren’t wealthy recover from shocks like these.
So why can’t we just slow down once our basic needs are met?
Relentless competition and a loud and flashy culture disturb the social soil and make it difficult for simplicity to take route. The world is too noisy and we are all struggling to make ourselves heard. Wealthy Youtubers work themselves to emotional breakdowns because they are afraid the algorithm will hide their future content if they take a week off. In academia, where there is always too much to read, people are still pressured by metrics and rankings to publish more and more.
But what can you say to make things quieter? Nothing. You can only add to the din.
In a world of excessive options, most of us stick with existing habits because the mental cost of evaluating all the possible alternatives is too high. Only occasionally does a new possibility break through the din of marketing and self-help exhortations. Food marketers often focus on children – branding juice or bread with tie-ins to popular films – because children are not locked into routines yet and are more than willing to switch breads, a switch which may well become permanent. But outside of these expensive, targeted strategies, when are people likely to actually change their daily behaviours?
During a shock or a disruption.
Research into food consumption in Europe suggests that a ‘shock’ plus the existence of fringe alternatives leads large numbers of people to change habits. Miele and Murdoch (2004) found that in both the organic food movement in the UK and the slow food movement in Italy, food scares were a key driver of broader adoption of ‘alternative’ food practices. Scares about salmonella in tomatoes and mad cow disease caused people to consider how their food was produced – leading them to change daily shopping habits which might never have been consciously re-evaluated otherwise.
Path dependency is a major stumbling block for positive change – whether it is in terms of life satisfaction or sustainability. Under normal circumstances, the better option has to be much better than the current option for us to initiate a switch and, when large systems are involved, it has to be better for most people. There are keyboard layouts that allow us to type faster – but the cost of learning to type on a new keyboard is high so people buy computers with the key layout they’re used to and new generations learn to type on inferior keyboards. But a shock can disrupt path dependency. Salmonella scares made people re-evaluate the whole food system. A transit strike in London shut down the subway and forced everyone to re-evaluate their commute — statistical research from the London School of Economics found that many of those who tried new routes stuck with the new routes. “A fraction of commuters had failed to find their optimal journey before the strike.”
Right now – most of us are facing an unprecedented disruption and we are re-evaluating our habits. For many of us, everything has stopped.
The shock and forced reflection of this pandemic are horrific. But we must be intentional about which industries and activities we restart and which we do not. This lull is an opportunity that we must not waste. We should be in no hurry to get back to ‘normal.’
Our vast engines of wealth production must be reconsidered, especially when they are pumping out products which make us less, rather than more, happy. Why are we working so hard to make apps more addictive? Why are we constantly promoting foods which don’t nourish and vehicles that damage our health in so many ways?
But, if less is more, if we simply do not need so many of the objects and services we have been producing, what will everyone do when we all go back to work?
In part, we can simply work less – perhaps bolstered by a 4-day work week and/or a basic income – taking the extra time to be with our families or pursue hobbies, to craft personal pleasures. Beyond that, it is time to turn our attention from the desires of those with disposable income, to the needs of those without. The guiding question here should be what do we actually need?
The value of such a shift becomes especially obvious when we recall that wealth doesn’t produce happiness beyond its ability to produce stability. Happiness is something we craft for our self with patience and awareness once our basic needs are met. Happiness should be a personal project and our shared social project must focus on basic needs. Every unmet need is work to be done. Every child struggling in school. Every parent struggling with anger. Every block without shade. Every lonely elder. Every hungry mouth. Every tired caregiver. A stable climate is a basic need. Robust mental health services are a basic need. Freedom from racism is a basic need. These are big, challenging, collective projects. And for the most part, these are social projects – education, care work, health care — with a minimal material footprint.
The proposal here is a material economy which focuses not on maximizing pleasure but on minimizing suffering. Maximizing pleasure is not eliminated though, it becomes something each of us pursues in our free time, with whatever odds and ends we might already have at hand. After all, creativity makes us happier than consumption – we are likely to get a deeper, more lasting joy inventing a game with friend than we can from a packaged product we consume alone.
In this lull, where so much of the glitz and glamour we have relied upon to entertain us has fallen silent, we must think both about how we can provide basic needs to all and how we can better enjoy what we already have. Long before the pandemic, I wrote about low-carbon luxury. I wrote about refining our senses to appreciate small pleasures, about getting more out of less. I know this transition has not been easy for many people but there is an opportunity here for sensory detox. A chance to take this slow down and learn to appreciate small pleasures once again. Some of what has been taken from us are genuinely basic needs – hugs, large social gatherings, shared rituals – and we must find ways to rebuild them safely. But many things we can be replaced.
Those who relied on big spectacles, noisy clubs or trips abroad to stimulate them are currently feeling a sort of angst-ridden withdrawal, but reality has a spectacular ability to reveal unexpected riches in even the most cramped spaces if our basic needs are met. My daughter for instance has found enough time to properly appreciate the toys she received for Christmas – toys which were completely excessive in a world where her schedule was always full and are still excessive even in a world of very long afternoons.
The inward turn which underlies low-carbon luxury is the same as the personal attention to our happiness which I have written about above. It will be useful to those suddenly in quarantine – and it will also be useful when we try to build a new culture, after the virus, which is more dependent on emotional and sensory skill and less dependent on material goods. The idea that our sensory experiences have unexplored depth, that there is a level of skill or craft in experiencing a food or landscape, is something I have puzzled over my entire life. In one entry of the blog series on Low-Carbon Luxury I wrote this:
This past summer, as I reduced my spending and footprint, I was trying to avoid store-bought drinks. One day, I took a pitcher, filled it with tap water, threw in a few mint leaves and some of the wild strawberries that have invaded our garden. What a sensation. It was cool and pure and quenched my thirst, but there were also these tiny, subtle threads of flavour, little minuets dancing just outside of certainty. People go gaga over expensive wine for the very same reason — subtle scents and flavours that force you to pay attention. But we can achieve the same effect with less. Crushing a sprig of lavender between our thumb and forefinger. Taking a long look at the subtle patchwork of hues in the windows of an apartment building at night.
Packaged foods have more and more seasoning every year, as though it were an arms race. Have you ever tried Sweet Chili Heat Doritos? It’s like being punched in the eye. Eating foods with too much salt and sugar can dull your senses, making it harder to appreciate the subtle flavours that really make food magical. Much of our culture – extreme sports, adventure travel, expensive cars – relies on this same excess of stimulus. But we don’t actually need any of it. Instead, take simple, humble tap water — a miracle in itself — and add a few slices of cucumber or a splash of juice and be amazed at how perceptive you really are. This happens within you, weightlessly, without leaving any footprints. This intensification of experience is a magical kind of consumption: it increases satisfaction and pleasure from exactly the same resources.
So let us use this involuntary detox from excess consumption to our advantage and teach people to appreciate simplicity again. When we rebuild, let us try to rebuild the richest, most meaningful world possible with the least amount of materials and energy. Let us think about what processes and institutions and practices will help us achieve that and focus on getting them up and running and guiding people towards them. We must recalibrate our wants and needs and learn to be satisfied with more modest material offerings. Once our needs are met, rather than inventing more and more outlandish wants, it is more productive to turn our attention to the needs of others. Research even shows that giving and helping make us happier than consuming and accumulating.