Friday, October 06, 2020

Doing Well . . . or Living Well?

What do you think when someone says that they are “doing well?” My guess is that you automatically tend toward assuming that they mean they are in a sound financial state: earning good money, owning property, looking forward to even better financial times ahead perhaps. “Doing well” has come to mean all of that. In my childhood in the west of England, farmers would describe a fat cow or pig as “a good do-er.” It’s the same idea.

What about “living well” as a description? For many people, it means more or less the same. If someone “lives well,” they have a fine house, gourmet meals, expensive vacations, and maybe luxuries like a boat, a sports car, or an expensive membership at a prestigious golf club. Yet none of these luxuries really guarantee that you will live well, or feel fully satisfied with your life. There are plenty of instances of rich and famous people descending into alcoholism, drug abuse, or violent despair. Suicides are more common, I believe, among well-off, professional people than those who appear to have far less to live for. Work-based stress and burnout are most likely to affect high achievers.

The question of what makes for living well is more than an abstract, philosophical inquiry. There are many reasons for working, but the main ones usually have to do with earning money. And once a person’s reasonable needs for food, shelter, and warmth are satisfied, everything else goes towards funding their personal notion of “living well.” Motivation, a topic beloved of management gurus of all kinds, hinges around what people want and prepared to work hard to obtain. Even if such desires are not financial, they still focus on living well, in one way or another.

What we have is a direct conflict between what it takes to be seen as “doing well,” and the kind of lifestyle that constitutes “living well.” It is easily possible to earn large amounts of money and have little time to enjoy it.
Increasingly, financial rewards (salary, bonuses, stock options, promotions) are linked to obviously measurable, extremely demanding, short-term objectives. Achieving those objectives demands working long hours, maybe limiting vacation time, and focusing on work throughout most of a person’s waking hours. As a result, purely personal matters, such as family time, intimate relationships, social activities, and rest and relaxation are forced to take a back seat to the demands of progress at work. What we have, therefore, is a direct conflict between what it takes to be seen as “doing well,” and the kind of lifestyle that truly constitutes “living well.” It is easily possible to earn large amounts of money and have little time to enjoy it.

We may revere Mother Theresa or Gandhi as examples of people who created lives of outstanding goodness while rejecting the allure of wealth, but few people hasten to emulate them.
None of this even challenges the basic assumption that both doing well and living well are primarily economically based. Of course, that is far from being a universal opinion. Many people reject the idea that money can bring happiness or satisfaction in life. For them, living well has little to do with high earnings or reaching an executive position. Philosophers and religious teachers down the ages have railed against the automatic linking of wealth with a good life. They have had little effect on the mass of people, it seems. We may revere Mother Theresa or Gandhi as examples of people who created lives of outstanding value while rejecting the allure of wealth, but few people hasten to emulate them.

Western, capitalist, industrialized society would collapse if a majority of people began to reject economic well-being and advancement as a basis for a good life. We may have developed awesome productive capabilities, but they would be useless without an equally amazing—and ever growing—capacity to consume all that we produce. Like the ancient image of the Ouroboros, the snake that bites its own tail, our society feeds on itself, endlessly (we hope) consuming whatever it produces, and creating greater and greater wealth in the process. Doing well and living well are equated as a result.

Maybe we should stop and think about this a little. It’s very easy to check in to a way of living that puts work and wealth creation before everything else, but quite hard to check out again. The very fact that more and more people seem to be tempted to do just that—to check out of the wealth-producing, corporate rat race in favor of other notions of living well—indicates that living well and doing well are not identical, however much marketers and salespeople try to convince us that they are. Living well turns out to be a significant part of the wider purpose of life. Doing well in a material sense may contribute to that, but it may not. We’re losing the balance between the two, and paying the price in stress-related disease, personal unhappiness, and family break-ups.

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John said...

Heya Carmine,

You are absolutely right that people are much more focused on consumption as a way of making themselves happy these days. And the results are fairly plain, as you describe.

But I believe you are very mistaken when you say that if everyone got a clue that western civilization and capitalism would collapse. The image of the snake eating itself has some truth to it, but you seem to have fallen into some of the same errors that got us in this situation in the first place.

I've said it before: civilization STARTED when some bright human DELAYED consumption in order to make himself a sharp stick to help with hunting. The history of civilization is the history of society postponing consumption in order to improve the long term situation. It is not the history of people deciding to consume more and more things!

If everyone were to suddenly decide that things such as cars, nice houses, boats and the like were less important than their family, their piece of mind and their personal growth, it would no doubt cause some serious economic shakedowns. But now, ironically, YOU'RE thinking short term!

Long term, society would reorganize around these new values. People would choose careers that they were not only good at but enjoyed. Entierly different forms of production would be rewarded in a way they have never been. Teachers, scientists, philosophers, spiritual leaders, and things we've never even thought of would suddenly become the new CEO, lawyer or fast paced executive.

Only if you define capitalism as the consumption of the particular set of goods that are currently valued in American society today would said capitalism collapse. If you define it as a great way of organizing the production of what society generally values, it would not collapse but thrive if people suddenly began caring about the long term.

You have let John Maynard Keynes define capitalism for you. It was his idiotic theories which stated that consumption, not saving, where what drove productivity and prosperity. That his theories were (and are!) so widely accepted has been one very large reason we are in the situation we are today.

There's more to say, but that's all I'll say for now. Clearly, this is all my take on it, and I could be mistaken. But try to examine the assumptions you are operating on. They have been promoted by people very much focused on the short term (Keynes said "In the long run we are all dead"!), so I cannot imagine why you would give them much credance.

8:16 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Hi John,

So . . . you have very properly taken me to task for making an easy assumption. I'm not going to defend my original point about the "collapse of civilization as we know it," because I think you may just be right!

I will, however, say this in my defense. There would be a need to create a completely new way of managing economic life, if the current (and well established) cycle of consumption and production was disrupted. That was my only reason for mentioning it. I was certainly not defending the status quo, short or long-term.

Was it all John Maynard Keynes' fault? He was not only a fellow Englishman, but also taught at my old university, so I was probably brought up on his ideas. Of course, in once sense he was quite right. Consumption does drives a certain kind of productivity: we can see it happening all around us. Whether there could be another type of capitalism, based on different values, is a fascinating idea.

I'll try tot hink about it . . . and be more careful in future about my assumptions.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:37 AM  
eip said...

it is true, most people have gotten them selves all confused.
yet, i find that the best joys of life come when least expected, and when a person is most stressed and tired.

then, it's a simple nights rest that can leave a person content. so, it's possible to have both money and well being, the two are not exclusive.

11:12 AM  
John said...

Well, perhaps I was a bit harsh on Keynes... He wasn't an idiot by any measure, he just didn't seem to think long term enough to realize the ramifications of some of his theories. Even his "arch-rival", F.A. Hayek, didn't seem to be to hard on him as an individual:

12:29 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, eip.

No, the two are not mutually exclusive. There needs to be a balance. I'm sure you aren't suggesting that you should regularly work yourself into a state of exhaustion to experience the pleasure of rest. That would be like banging your head against a brick wall because it feels so good when you stop.

What I see happening is an imbalance, where "doing well" (in the economic/financial sense) is pursued to the detriment of "living well" (in the sense of enjoying all the other aspects of life).

Keep reading, my friend.

1:22 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I'm sure Keynes can take it, John. Besides, there are those who think that all economics of the traditional kind is so much rubbish and has no useful effect on the real world. I'm thinking of Paul Ormerod.

1:25 PM  
Jason said...

Hi Gang. Lovely post, again. Unfortunatley we are fighting the strongest of human emotions : greed and envy.

Does any one know or have a copy of that old parable about the Big Exec and Mexican fisherman ?

I first read it a few years ago - really before Slow started and before I'd realised what i was into.

Here it is again. It captures the futility of the Western Capitalist disease - and highlights that people are still living quite happily in a way that we can only aspire to :

Story - The Mexican fisherman

The Mexican fisherman

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "only a little while."

The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.

The American then asked, "but what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15-20 years."

"But what then?"

The American laughed and said that's the best part. "When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions.. Then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

4:34 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Jason, for a wonderful story. It captures so well the futlility of much of our obsession with getting and spending.

Keep reading (and telling stories), my friend.

7:18 AM  

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