2011-06-09 23:59:19Turn your back on opulence, America -- Chrstian Science Monitor
John Hartz
John Hartz

Turn your back on opulence, America

Instead of bigger, faster, cheaper, Americans need a more fulfilling, satisfying kind of prosperity. The ancient Greeks called it eudaemonia – 'flourishing' – which means the pursuit of fulfillment, inspiration, creation, and accomplishment.

By Umair Haque, Contributor / Cristian Science Monitor, June 6, 2011

America's bankrupt, but not in the way you think. Not merely financially, but at a deeper level, it's bankrupt in terms of its understanding of prosperity – what a "good life" is imagined to be.

Try this thought experiment. What might you see if you were to look at the economy not through the lens of outputs – "industries" categorized together by industrial production – but outcomes?

You might see, instead of an "energy industry," a resource addiction that saps bucks, drains ideas, and preserves self-destructive expectations. You might see, instead of food and education "industries," an obesity epidemic and a debt-driven education crisis. And you might ask yourself, who is that "financial services industry" really serving?

The above is what you might call an "outcomes gap": a chasm between what our economy produces and what you might call a meaningfully well-lived life, what the ancient Greeks called eudaemonia. While often translated as "happiness," eudaemonia is actually a bit more complicated. A better translation would be "flourishing."

Tell me if this sounds like "flourishing" to you: Today's economy lets you chow down on a supersize McBurger, check stocks on your smart phone, buy a McMansion on hypercredit, and watch "Jersey Shore" marathons on a giant LCD TV.

It's a vision of the good life that is all about opulence. And it's a conception built in and for the Industrial Age: about having more.

Now consider a different vision: not passive, slack-jawed "consuming," but living: doing, achieving, fulfilling, becoming, inspiring, transcending, creating, accomplishing. That's an alternate vision, one I call eudaemonic prosperity, and it's about living meaningfully well.

Here's how I'd contrast eudaemonia with opulence. The pursuit of opulence is predicated on having more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now – about immediate pleasure through material possession. The pursuit of eudaemonia is a more nuanced, complex conception of a good life, that asks: "How does the way you work and live make you smarter, fitter, grittier, more empathic, wiser? What did you build today – and how did it help someone live, work, or play meaningfully better?"

The truth is that hedonic opulence just might be what mathematicians call a "local optimum" – an apex we've reached, only to discover a whole mountain range beyond the peak. For while the recipe for opulence has been refined down to a science by economists, the truth is that the world probably can't afford it: China already consumes about 40 percent of the world's copper, and 50 percent of its cement, iron ore, and coal – but even so, it's achieved only 10 percent of American levels of opulence (at least as measured by per capita gross domestic product).

Even if it was able to magically close that yawning gap, there's no formula for cleaning up the messes that emerge after the dish of hedonic opulence has been cooked – everything from climate change to pollution to inequality to fracturing societies, to name just a few.

From flat-lining incomes for most households to the loss of a sense of purpose and meaning in much of our daily work lives, we all know: Putting opulence on a pedestal is leaving us – has left us – not just fiscally broken, but intellectually, physically, emotionally, even spiritually unhealthy.

Hence, I'd suggest: Though it harks back to antiquity, eudaemonia's a smarter, sharper, wiser, richer conception of prosperity.

Umair Haque is Director of the Havas Media Lab and author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He also founded Bubblegeneration, an agenda-setting advisory boutique that shaped strategies across media and consumer industries