Eudaimonia – (thanks, Umair Haque, @umairh)

Umair Haque writes for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Blog Network, of which I’ve been a follower for some years.  To my delight this week, along with Richard Florida to whom I will return later, he re-tweeted the blog I wrote on Sunday, Change the World (http://tinyurl.com/3qrxech).  So, as you do, I went looking for his recent work and came across two he’s written recently on related themes.  (http://s.hbr.org/obMTw3 and http://s.hbr.org/qkaChS).

He talks about ‘eudaimonia’, not a term that I was familiar with but it rather brilliantly encapsulates the growing sense that the values in our 21st century life need to change.  What it means is, according to Umair Haque, ‘the art of living meaningfully well’.  Eudaimonic prosperity is “not merely passive, slack-jawed “consuming” but living: doing, achieving, fulfilling, becoming, inspiring, transcending, creating, accomplishing — all the stuff that matters the most. See the difference? Opulence is Donald Trump. Eudaimonia is the Declaration of Independence.”

All the talk we currently hear about the experience economy, behavioural economics and so on, suddenly seems trivial.  It feels like the advertising world has sensed that one of the consequences of the crises we are living through is a need for people to rethink what matters, and this represents a potential threat to them as purveyors of the ‘opulent hedonism’ of our consumer society.  So a way of dealing with it is to describe it in terms that make it seem manageable.  It allows them to continue to seem to be ahead, putting the reins on the customers’ ‘unmet needs’ so that the economics of having more and more remain unperturbed. ‘You, o great customer, can have more but you can’t have different – do not question our carefully developed paradigms of the good life; we know what’s good for you.’  Governments buy into this and support it because, that way, revenues lie.  Everything that is associated with ‘growth’ is predicated on the making and selling of more, more, more.  The supply and demand cycle goes on forever.

But does it?  I know there are many influences at work here, importantly including climate change, but I wonder if one of the effects of the growing visibility of emerging economies is that they too give us cause to re-examine the values we live by in the West.  Working in India and then Africa over the last few years has been interesting – and profoundly moving.  Let me say quickly, I don’t work with the areas of famine or disease or war.  I work in the cities, currently from Lagos to Harare; quite a spectrum; and I work with creative entrepreneurs, helping them to run their businesses more effectively.  But it was clear, early on, that the cultural values that inform them as people are different from ours.  Not just in the constant and unembarrassed embracing of faith, of God, expressed uninhibitedly in Mission Statements and declarations of core purpose; but also in the way they relate to each other, to their families and to their communities. You are always aware that, even with the most commercially minded of them, there are strong and unbreakable rules and commitments in those relationships that would seem rather odd over here.  And yet, out of the financial crisis that has enveloped most of the ‘developed’ world, ordinary people are starting to think again about the values of family, of relationships; of the importance of life itself; the inner ‘quality of life’ as opposed to the quality of life validated externally by economic status.  It’s important not to romanticise this but is there significance in the slow and gentle but persistent move of people out of the madhouse of the City of London, for example, into quieter environments, more closely associated with nature, with earth, with a fundamental reality with which we seem to have lost touch during the 20th century?  The growing move to social enterprise, to community shops, to small but collaborative businesses, to increased volunteering – are these movements reflecting a general unease with what we have become?   When Evan Davis on the BBC’s Today programme remarks that ‘the old rule of thumb that ‘low growth means high unemployment’ seems no longer to apply’, something unusual is clearly happening.  Businesses, my own amongst them, are taking steps, despite a difficult business environment, to preserve jobs, not cut them.  As a friend commented to me last night, when did it become a rule that good businesses minimised their labour forces?  When did it become not only acceptable but even admirable to reduce your staffing?  How can Government talk about the horrors of two and three generation families who have never known employment when the pressure at every level is to reduce the employment available?  How interesting that this Government talks about relying on the private sector to get the economy going again and, peculiarly, the private sector is doing so but by safeguarding jobs, not by creating them.  So it’s the new, entry level generation that carries the weight of the unemployment statistics – there are more new graduates unemployed now than there have been since records began.  Where does that leave our future?

So what seems to be happening?  People are starting to earn a living out of doing what they love.  Certainly in the creative sector, the means of distribution and dissemination are more in the hands of the creators than ever before and whole new ways of doing business are springing up. Musicians now upload their new work on to the internet and put effort into creating communities of support around their work (thus also, incidentally, protecting their work against piracy – if I’m in your community, why would I steal your work?) New filmmakers, writers, even visual artists, are learning from this and copying.  They’re mostly not becoming millionaires but they are making a living – enough to manage on, to be able to create more work, to expand their audiences. Significantly, they are in control.  Everything I wrote about in my earlier blog about why creative businesses resist the economic imperatives to ‘grow their business’ is made manifest in these new businesses.  The fact of engagement with a known audience, with a group of people who commit, value, appreciate and invest in the work is, for many of these creatives, a huge validation and reward in itself.  It has real meaning, both for the creative and her audience.  How wonderfully ironic that one of the economist’s mantras is ‘scalability – you must be able to scale your business’ –   how about scaling it down, to human scale?

It’s worth reading Umair’s ‘manifesto’ – it’s a passionate call to all of us to think again about the values that inform our lives.  As he  says, ‘it’s a stake in the ground — a place to start.’  Maybe we all need that.

Finally, in response to one of Umair’s blogs, someone sent in a quote from Bobby Kennedy.  I’m going to reproduce it here.  I found it as moving as I found its provenance startling – but it’s an important statement as we go further into examining the reality of adopting eudaimonia in our 21st century society.

The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

 

Anamaria Wills   Anamaria@cida.org

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