Yearning for Balance

Studies suggest that a large majority of Americans feel that we need a different, less materialistic way of life which focuses more on fundamental values like family and community. What's holding us back from making the change?


I've just started reading The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Very early in the book is a discussion of a startling study of Americans' views on materialism and human values. In 1995 the Harwood Group, commissioned by the Merck Family Fund, published a thoroughly remarkable report. Entitled Yearning for Growth: Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment, the report presents the results of focus groups in four American cities and a broader national opinion survey. Its conclusions are powerful: in short, Americans are eager to restore balance in their lives, to focus less on the material and more on family and community. The key findings are:

"1. Americans believe our priorities are out of whack. People of all backgrounds share certain fundamental concerns about the values they see driving our society. They believe materialism, greed, and selfishness increasingly dominate American life, crowding out a more meaningful set of values centered on family, responsibility, and community. People express a strong desire for a greater sense of balance in their lives - not to repudiate material gain, but to bring it more into proportion with the non-material rewards of life.

2. Americans are alarmed about the future. People feel that the material side of the American Dream is spinning out of control, that the effort to keep up with the Joneses is increasingly unhealthy and destructive: "The Joneses is killing me," declared a man in one focus group. People are particularly concerned about the implications of our skewed priorities for children and future generations - they see worse trouble ahead if we fail to change course.

3. Americans are ambivalent about what to do. Most people express strong ambivalence about making changes in their own lives and in our society. They want to have financial security and live in material comfort, but their deepest aspirations are non-material ones. People also struggle to reconcile their condemnation of other AmericansU choices on consumption with their core belief in the freedom to live as we choose. Thus, while people may want to act on their concerns, they are paralyzed by the tensions and contradictions embedded in their own beliefs. In turn, they shy away from examining too closely not only their own behavior, but that of others.

4. Americans see the environment as connected to these concerns - in general terms. People perceive a connection between the amount we buy and consume and their concerns about environmental damage, but their understanding of the link is somewhat vague and general. People have not thought deeply about the ecological implications of their own lifestyles; yet there is an intuitive sense that our propensity for "more, more, more" is unsustainable."

These conclusions are at once obvious, even banal (of course relationships are more important than money) and yet thoroughly radical. When the predominant forces driving our social organization aim at indefinite, unceasing growth, the constant increase of material, the expression of a desire to reclaim our time and efforts for our families and communities is a challenge to the Leviathan of giant corporations, monstrously complex financial and commercial systems, corrupt politics, and the many other forces of darkness which conspire to minimize the dignity and worth of human beings.

This piece in Yes! Magazine highlights a somewhat paradoxical feature of the attitudes expressed in the surveys. A very important part of the study's findings is the gap between people's own values and their perception of the values of those around them. Most people stated that their most important values were non-material ones, but also felt that this was not true for the people around them. In fact,

 

"When people are asked to compare the values they apply as guiding principles in their own lives with the values that drive the rest of society, the gaps are striking (see graph). Huge majorities of Americans cite responsibility, family life, and friendship as key guiding principles for themselves, with more than 85 percent of survey respondents rating those values at 8 or higher on a 10-point scale.

Yet respondents believe that their fellow Americans do not share these priorities: fewer than half believe that responsibility, family life, or friendship rate 8 or higher for "most people in our society." Conversely, people feel that most Americans are more strongly guided by prosperity and wealth than they are themselves."

 

Such findings are, at one and the same time, both reassuring and disturbing. One the one hand, it is inspiring to see evidence of a widespread awareness that something is wrong with our wasteful and acquisitive lifestyles. The notion that material things are just one of many of life's considerations - and in many ways not the most important one - is not a minority view. Apparently this view is widely held among Americans, or at least most of them will go along when the question is put to them in this way. But then we must reckon with the discrepancy between Americans' stated goals and values and the reality of day-to-day life. Though most people seem to feel that family and community are more important that material things and the maximalist pursuit of wealth, our economy, politics, business, and other affairs do not reflect this preference. If anything, we are falling further into a capitalist-materialist quagmire.

How is this possible? How is it that our collective social existence is such a poor expression of our fundamental values? This is a very big question, and there are surely many answers, large and small. It is tempting to say that our institutions - political, economic, educational - have failed us. But what does that mean? After all, we are our institutions. And yet it is difficult not to conclude that the structure of our social relations is somehow preventing the realization of Americans' true needs and desires. An economic paradigm that focuses narrowly on never-ending growth, for example, is surely part of the explanation for why human meaning has been subsumed by other, easier-to-quantify priorities.

Are our current democratic forms adequate to address these issues? Is there a solution to these problems which is predominantly within existing forms of government? Is there a way to remake our society rationally, driven by the realization that a new order of affairs must focus on things that we - as human beings embedded in a rapidly declining environment - actually need, deep down in our souls? Not a bigger television or a new car or faster wireless downloads, but caring relationships, bonds of trust and commitment, time to reflect and engage and discuss, the resources to grow our talents and apply them in meaningful pursuits. Or are we careening off the tracks, past the point of being able to manage a transition to a new form of society in which human needs and human dignity are the orienting principles? Perhaps we will only be in a position to rebuild our social order along more meaningful lines when we have no choice, when the old way breaks down completely and going it is not possible any longer to continue under previous ways of living and organizing. We may not be far from that point.

That our current economic and political order has badly failed, and that its rapid and unavoidable breakdown may be much closer than most of us think, is the theme of a number of articles I'm working on at the moment. I hope to provide some answers to questions posed here, and to discuss some ways forward. Stay tuned.


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