how much is enough? (and a virtual book club proposal)


In the 1930s, British economist John Maynard Keynes (those who studied macroeconomics would be friendly with him) predicted that over the next century, wealth would rise to such a level that we would have to work no more than 15 hours a week, allowing us ample time for greater life pursuits - ‘the good life’.  Keynes predicted that a utopian state would evolve, where people will have amassed enough monetary wealth to fulfil their material needs, thus allowing more philosophical, meaningful and soul-enriching pursuits to dominate lifestyles.
via regaining paradise

Ha! HONK if you’re still waiting for that one! In fact what’s happened over the last century is somewhat a trillion times less inspiring. Overall, average leisure time has increased by only four or five hours per week.
 While, overall, we’re 4 to 5 times richer than we were 100 years ago, we’re working just as hard, just as long.
Consequently, we’re missing out on doing the stuff that makes life richer:  honestly and deeply connecting with friends and family, growing our own food, hiking through a forest, volunteering for a cause, reading a nourishing book... the good stuff, the stuff that makes life meaningful, purposeful.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten that the ideal of wealth was never meant to be an end in itself but a means to achieving (and maintaining) a good life.

As American political philosopher Michael Sandel asserts, "without quite realising it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society". This has seen the values of a market economy (dollars, growth, and productivity) leach into every aspect of human life, where now “social relations are made over in the image of the market". Moral or ethical questions have now been replaced with “how much does it cost?” or “how much can it bring in?”.

And rarely, if at all, do we take stock and ask ourselves, how much is enough? How much do we really need to live a good life?

Instead we keep our heads down, we keep running ‘round and ‘round on the hamster wheel. Waiting. Waiting for life to get better.
I recently took a foot off the wheel. I reduced my working hours down to three days. And it’s quite a shift to fathom, I must say. A life not dominated by paid work. People are puzzled when I tell them what I’ve done. The thought of earning less money, well it baffles. I think that’s largely because we’ve been told working full-time and earning as much money as possible is The Thing To Do. Those of us that challenge that assumption get a bamboozled look. But more on that later (that’s an entirely separate post).
This is deep, heavy stuff. Important stuff. It’s the kind of stuff I ponder in the shower, or while chopping vegetables for dinner, or walking the dog, or hanging up the laundry. How did we get ourselves to this point, where we generally have more than enough material goods to afford us a comfortable life, yet we are sadder, sicker, lonelier and angrier than ever before? How did we allow market values to shape our personal lives, and what can we do to break free from them? There must be a better way to ‘do’ this thing called living, no?
These are precisely the questions British political economist Robert Skidelsky, and his philosopher son Edward, ask us to consider in their latest book, How much is enough? The love of money and the case for the good life.
This book has got me excited. Just the title gets me revved up, and I’ve ordered myself a copy to pore over. I reckon it might be a book you might like to pore over to.
The premise of the book is this – The Skidelskies argue that, 

“most developed economies are already rich enough for people to get off the growth treadmill and start thinking about what life is for, what they should do with their own lives, and how society should develop”.

They argue that we’ve been living within a set framework dictated by a market economy that promised to fulfil and exceed our needs, but instead has pushed us into a never-ending cycle of insatiable consumption. It’s a framework that has failed us dismally, both economically and morally.
As such, they postulate an alternative framework, one that nurtures the seven factors that they believe constitute the good life: health, security, respect, personality, friendship, leisure, and harmony with nature.
The Skidelskies get a bit specific, apparently, such as proposing restrictions on advertising to “reduce the pressure to consume, because”, Skidelsky himself says, “the pressure to consume is one of the things that drives the pressure to work”. They also propose a tax on conspicuous consumption.
The book also delves into findings from happiness studies (indeed, it questions their relevance) and discusses the environmental impact of our insatiable appetite for consumption.
You can hear Skidelsky Snr chat about it all in a recent interview on RN, here

I particularly love Skidelsky’s repute to the argument that what he and his son are proposing is a sort of nanny-state:

“people erect an ideal of free choice against something called a nanny state, and in fact we don’t have free choice in many areas, we choose within a framework. If people agree there is such a thing as a good life, let’s start altering the framework in which our choices are made.”

I also love that the Skidelskies are quite specific about what they mean when they say ‘leisure time’. They take the Ancient Greek view of leisure – that it’s not about sitting around playing Wii, it’s about pursuing things that make us richer in spirit and in soul... things that makes societies better, things that helps them move forward.

So what’s this virtual book club proposition you speak of?
This topic is deep, heavy stuff. Important stuff. Fundamental stuff we all need to think about in order to make life better. So I was thinking, since I’ll be reading this book over the next month, we might form a virtual book club of sorts, to discuss these ideas. I might throw a question out there, or comment on one aspect of the book, and you might comment back. It’d have to be a bit haphazard – I’m not suggesting we meet virtually on a Tuesday night by the fire with a glass of wine. A book club... of sorts.
If you’re interested, this is how I think it might work:
·         Grab yourself a copy of the book (at any good bookstore, library or links below) and get reading. I should have my hands on a copy within the next week.
·         Once a week I’ll write a short post discussing some of the ideas and themes I’ve read in the book so far. I’ll pose a question, or share my thoughts. You might like to share yours.
·         If you’re on Twitter, you might like to follow me and join the conversation there too. Use the hashtag #howmuchisenough.
·         On Instagram, I might post images of the simple things that make life better. You might like to do the same. And use #howmuchisenough.

·         You could join the conversation on Facebook too.

How to get your hands on the book

Borrow a copy from your local library, or pick one up at your local bookstore. Alternatively, you can source via these online stores:


I agree with the Skidelskies that we need to stop and ask ourselves "how much is enough?", but I'm curious to read what the authors suggest is the way out of our pickle - if we agree what we have now is enough, what then? When the system in which we operate is continuously telling us "it's never enough", how do we break free, what has to give first? 
And I'm curious to know how you feel... do you believe you have a 'good life', the right work-life balance? What do you think constitutes 'a good life'?


15 comments:

  1. Thanks, Maria, for bringing this book up - I'll definitely be getting a copy as soon as it's available at the library.

    I'm going to try a little experiment for the next month: wants v needs - if I only buy things I need, will I be any less happy than if I bought everything I wanted? And maybe I'll work on getting rid of the plethora of possessions I have that I don't need... My life could certainly use simplifying!

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    1. Excellent experiment Joanna, let us know how you're going throughout the month!

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  2. Midway through this post, I started to cry. I am an unemployed teacher, trying to find a job for the 2013 school year, and being increasingly frustrated with different aspects of trying to find work. I have been pretty fortunate to have a wonderful man who supports me, not only financially, but emotionally in my journey.

    I have also been lucky in that, being home a lot has lead me to looking at a more sustainable-live/living, something I'd always wanted to do, but never had the time to really dive into. I have also started planning for a handmade-Indy Biz that I can hopefully make a bit of money, while being able to stay at home (since I don't have steady work outside the home currently).

    The post just really struck home and that what I am doing is FINE, less stress, more care for my partner. Something that full time teaching does NOT allow for (unless it's school holidays of course, but then again - who am I fooling on that one?!). THANK you for this, it was JUST what I needed today!!!

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    1. Oh Laura, it's so complicated isn't it, so many things need to be in place. Did you listen to the RN interview I linked to? In it, Robert Skidelsky mentions briefly how they propose that if people (who really didn't need or want to be working full time) took fewer hours at work, it would free up more work for more people and create more flexible working arrangements(fairer job distribution, job sharing and the like). Interesting stuff! Truly hope you find a good balance. Maria x

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    2. Laura, me, too--re the man to support me. But I have even less earning potential. I'm a writer--a novelist! How crazy! But you know, I'm with you on supporting him in turn, so he can come home to a nice, peaceful (low cost) home. Sounds corny, but it's how we roll. Less stress, more care. Good luck on your aspirations, and yes, good fortune!

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  3. This is really interesting Maria, great post!

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  4. this sounds really interesting. I haven't read the book but it sounds in line with work done by the New Economics Foundation on shifting towards a 21 hour work week (http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/21-hours). It is a great organisation that looks at a lot of these questions amongst other things.

    I am really excited to give it a sort of try as I start a 4 day week next month. More to work on my dissertation and pursue other interests like photography but will be great to see how it goes and how well used that time is (i.e. not spending hours pinning pretty pictures).

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    1. Michelle you're brilliant! Thanks so much for that link, I love it. Will have to take a good look through that website. I love their tag-line "Economics as if people and the planet mattered". Yes!

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  5. A very interesting post, Maria and very timely for me . I don't always get time to research these things and it is great that your interest in this kind of literature reminds me to do the kind of reading that uses that bit of my brain I don't use enough.
    I think I might have to get that book.

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  6. A local council near me recently moved to a 9 day fortnight for all it's employees...with no drop in pay for them, but also no reduction in workload. No surprises for guessing what happened - happier employees = increased productivity = no drop in output = money saved for council on not running their buildings for the extra day a fortnight. It just seems smart don't you think?!? I'll def be seeking out this book, thanks!

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  7. The virtual book club is a brilliant idea. Your blog just gets better and better. LOVE your choice of book. Count me in! I hope I get hold of a copy before you finish... I'm looking forward to the discussion.

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    1. Thanks Jen! I'm still waiting for my copy, but hope to have it in the next week or so. Should be an interesting read!

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