Consumption Up, Well-Being Down

The Gift to be Simple, part 2

Despite the great recession of 2007-2009, and despite the slowness of a number of economic measures of recovery, U.S. per capita consumption, is still rising. Adjusted for inflation, in the 20 years 1976 to 1996, US per capita consumption rose 36 percent. In the next 20 years, from 1996 to 2016, it rose another 32 percent – barely slowed down.

Compared to 20 years ago, we own 70 percent more cars per person -- and we drive 30 percent more miles.

Our houses are getting bigger and bigger. In 1950, the median size of a new single-family house built in the U.S. was 1100 square feet. Wasn’t that enough? In 1973, the median was up to 1,525 square feet; twenty-five years later, 1998, the median reached 2000 square feet. Last year, median square feet of new houses broke 2500. That’s median, not mean, so this is not a product of the upper echelons building enormous mansions. It means half of all new houses built today are twice or more the size of the median new house in 1960.

The percentage of the world’s population comprised of Americans totals less than 4.5 percent. The percentage of the world’s resources consumed by Americans totals 30 percent. That means the average American is consuming 10 times the resources of the average rest-of-the-world.

In 2012, American children were receiving allowances averaging $780 per year. The same year, more than an eighth of the world population was living on that much per year. That’s almost a billion people getting by on what the average American child gets in allowance.

We aren’t happy with all this wealth. While that per capita consumption was rising and rising, the percent of Americans reporting they were “very happy” has stayed right about the same as it was in 1957. Standard of living is going up, but quality of life is not.

There is an index of social health. It combines 16 indicators:
  • infant mortality,
  • child abuse,
  • child poverty,
  • teenage suicide,
  • teenage drug abuse,
  • high school dropouts,
  • unemployment,
  • weekly wages,
  • health insurance coverage,
  • poverty among the elderly,
  • out-of-pocket health-care costs among the elderly,
  • homicides,
  • alcohol-related traffic fatalities,
  • food insecurity,
  • affordable housing, and
  • income inequality.
According to this index, the social health in the US peaked in 1973, then steadily fell until 1981. Since then, it has bounced around a bit and essentially stayed flat.

We’re consuming more and more resources, but our national social health is staying lower than in was 43 years ago.

And to support these consumption rates, we work frenetically. A Gallup poll last December “found that 61 percent of working Americans said they did not have enough time to do the things they wanted to do.”

It’s true that we probably exaggerate our own busy-ness. A 2011 study from Monthly Labor Review found that “people estimating 75-plus hour workweeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours.” OK, but something about modern life makes us feel very, very busy.

Having more money really doesn’t make us any happier – except for the very poor. If you're trying to get by on less than $10,000 a year, then more money really would make life better. For those making the US median or more, any further increase in income would have no real relation to the quality of life. Doctors are the highest income group in the U.S. Lawyers aren’t far behind. But what are the professions with the highest proportion of unhappy people? Doctors and lawyers. Of course, I know some very happy, emotionally healthy people who are doctors and lawyers. But there are also a lot of unhappy ones out there, leading lives of quiet desperation. The point is that wealth isn’t really what we want. It’s only what we so often act like we want.

The life of simplicity is richer than modern consuming lifestyles. As Duane Elgin wrote thirty-five years ago,
“We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted from our critical life circumstances. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot be purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, crucial to acting in a voluntary manner is being aware of ourselves as we move through life” (Voluntary Simplicity 32).
Our normal waking consciousness is so embedded within a stream of inner-fantasy dialogue that little attention can be paid to the moment-to-moment experiencing of ourselves. We aren’t continuously and consciously ‘tasting’ our experience of ourselves. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” as Wordsworth put it.

Simplicity is not turning away from progress, but is crucial to progress. Elgin writes:
“The West has pursued material and social growth without a balanced regard for the development of interior human potentials. The result has been the emergence of a life-denying and self-serving order that has exhausted both its vitality and its sense of direction.” (233).
We can learn
“to touch the Earth ever more lightly with our material demands...to touch others ever more gently and responsively with our social institutions...to live our daily lives with ever less complexity and clutter...the skills of touching life ever more lightly be releasing habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that make our passage through life weighty and cloudy rather than light and spacious; to ‘touch and go’ – not to hold on – but to allow each moment to arise with newness and freshness;...to be in the world with a quiet mind and an open heart....Who we are as an entire human family is much greater than who we are as the sum of isolated cultures” (234-236).
* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Gift to be Simple"
See also
Part 1: Our Sordid Boon
Part 3: A Path to Simplicity

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