Enjoyable, meaningful lives without economic growth or jobs?

As a behavioural psychologist, I am challenged by Tim Jackson’s book “Prosperity without Growth“. Living on a finite planet, how do we find ways to flourish in a world of less economic growth and less material consumption? At the same time, if AI and robotics continue to replace jobs at all levels in society, could a Universal Basic Income paid to every UK citizen enable enjoyable, meaningful lives which contributed to society in other ways than by traditional paid employment?

Asking people how they might behave or feel in an imagined future is tough. They don’t know and nor do we. But we can get clues from studying how people behave now and why that is and use that to understand how those behaviours might either be affected by or themselves affect this rather different future we face.

I conducted an online survey of 325 UK residents roughly matching UK demographic profiles on gender, age and personal income. I invited them to describe recent activities (either in their paid work or leisure time) which they found enjoyable or meaningful or they felt made a difference and why they felt that way. I explored: demographic differences, how much the activities cost them,  environmental impact,  dependence on material consumption and any economic benefit or contribution to social capital. I also asked them whether they had recently engaged in any of the following socio-cultural activities: creating, composing or designing, craft or construction, learning or discovering, collaborating, volunteering or helping and being active outdoors. The list was chosen to reflect the sectors of care, craft, creativity and culture suggested by Tim Jackson as a possible basis for a new kind of sustainable prosperity.   Finally, respondents were asked to rate how much they enjoyed their lives, found them meaningful, felt valued and felt able to make a difference or change things.

The 900 descriptions of enjoyable, meaningful and difference-making activities were diverse but refreshingly simple in nature: walking the dog, gardening, playing with the kids, listening to music, making something, helping a neighbour, attending Church, reading a book, watching TV or singing in a choir. Shopping was rarely mentioned. Most activities involved little or no material consumption, had little or no environmental impact and were mostly free or cost very little.  Levels of personal income had little effect on the choice of activities with the exception of some foreign holidays and major home improvements.

prosper activities

Examples of the kinds of activities described

Only 5% of enjoyable activities, 6% of meaningful activities and 19% of difference making activities happened as part of their paid work. Worryingly, this may reflect the preponderance today of “bullshit jobs” as David Graeber refers to them.  The activities described make a small but steady economic contribution via services such as gyms, instructors and guides, cinemas, entertainment events, restaurants and media generators such as digital content, books, music and films. These are industries which rely heavily on either shared facilities or human creativity or personal interaction.

While everyone described something they enjoyed, 11% of people couldn’t think of a meaningful activity. Those that did described helping others, doing things with their family and learning or experiencing new things. Only 1 in 5 of these activities contributed directly to social capital but they were heavily reliant on the social capital generated by others such as local clubs and social or sports events.

25% of people couldn’t think of something they had done recently which they felt made a difference or had an effect- whether in or outside of their paid work. The activities named ranged from helping others to home improvements or doing things together with their family as well as 19% connected to work. The work ones varied from analysing statistical data to managing funerals! Helping others outside of work again relied heavily on the existence of non-profit, social organisations such as local charities, clubs, schools and churches.

When asked about their engagement in socio-cultural activities reflecting creativity, craft, culture and care – around half the respondents had not engaged in 5 out of the 8 listed in recent months. They were least likely to have engaged in creative/composing/designing, craft or construction, learning or developing a new skill, collaborating with others or volunteering. They were most likely to have been active outdoors and to have helped a non family member. Although few had engaged in any of these activities as part of their paid work, those in paid work were much more likely to engage with such activities in their leisure time than those not in paid work or retired (who arguably had more leisure time).  I would like to understand this difference better.

In terms of overall well-being, people rated their lives as slightly higher on enjoyment than meaningfulness and lower on making a difference and feeling valued. Overall ratings increased with personal income up to £51k and then leveled off.

3 factors made a significant difference to people’s ratings on meaningfulness, value and sense of making a difference. These were whether they were graduates, whether they were a member of a social group, club or organisation and whether they had any religious faith or other spiritual practice. And these 3 factors were themselves cross correlated. Other levels of educational attainment (GCSE, A Levels, Diploma) made little difference. Further analysis showed that graduates were much more likely than non-graduates to have engaged in every one of the socio-cultural activities listed (mostly in their leisure time) and the greater the engagement in such activities, the higher their overall well-being ratings.

So, what do the survey findings suggest about our ability to prosper enjoyably and meaningfully in a world of less economic growth, less consumption and less paid work?

People readily engage in day to day activities that they enjoy and find meaningful and which cost them very little, consume very little and have minimal environmental impact. It suggests our individual prosperity may be less tied to our consumerist lifestyles than is sometimes thought and less than our government is relying on to grow the economy. This fits with other findings that the population were happier in the 1950’s than they are now.

What is less clear is how well we would prosper as individuals and as a society if everyone was financially provided for via a Universal Basic Income but few were engaged in paid employment. The enjoyable and meaningful activities which people described are ones they could and would still happily engage in. But few of these could be classed as “occupational” in the sense of purposefully engaging one’s skills and interests throughout each day, generating respect from others and giving people the sense of making a valued contribution to society.

In particular, activities associated with care, craft, creativity and culture weren’t practised with any frequency by half the surveyed population. These are activities which can become “occupations” in their own right in the sense of providing ongoing meaning, skill development and personal fulfillment as well as contributing to social capital and new kinds of economic growth.

The fact that graduates were much more likely than non-graduates to engage in such socio-cultural activities, as well as being more actively involved in clubs and voluntary organisations, does raise questions – especially as care, craft, creativity and culture are certainly not the focus of our current educational systems. My hunch is that it’s less about the academic training of graduates and more about the whole social experience of  attending university with the opportunity to create new social networks, try new interests and even identities. Also one is surrounded by several hundred different societies, clubs and interest groups all run by volunteers like yourself.

Alternatively, it could be that the particular socio-cultural activities we named actually reflect a distorted graduate-centric view of prosperity. This graduate is worried that could be the case and would welcome other views.

Finally, I am uncomfortably aware that the present study was limited to people in the UK who are fortunate to have enough to meet their daily needs of warmth, food and shelter in life and so have arguably the luxury of considering how enjoyable and meaningful their lives are. I am sorry that we live in a wealthy country where that is the case.

I hope the questions and findings described might trigger conversations about untangling economic growth, consumerism and jobs from human prosperity.

A copy of the full research report can be read here.

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What’s the value of your home?

newcompass21072_2280284kIsn’t it ironic that if someone happens to ask us the value of our house, we don’t tell them how attractive it is or how warm and comfortable or how much we enjoy the views. We simply give them a £ value and may even mention whether that figure has gone up or down in the time since we purchased it even if the attributes we value day to day in living there haven’t changed at all!

And therein lies a bigger problem for our society going back to when land first started being treated as tradable, private property in the 16th century triggering the birth of modern capitalism.  Land is different from other forms of capital – we all need it to live but it is limited, we can’t create more of it.

As this excellent article explains: “much of the wealth accumulated in recent decades has come from housing. The classical economists would have viewed this as the accumulation of unearned economic rent; a transfer of wealth from the rest of society towards land and property owners. But in Britain, these windfalls are celebrated — house price inflation is hailed by economists and the media alike as a sign of economic strength. The cost this imposes on the rest of society is ignored. As John Stuart Mill wrote back in 1848:

“If some of us grow rich in our sleep, where do we think this wealth is coming from?  It doesn’t materialize out of thin air. It doesn’t come without costing someone, another human being. It comes from the fruits of others’ labours, which they don’t receive.”

As someone of the lucky age group who benefited this way, I am challenged.

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Identity and Narrative

Picasso_A303302_web_1

Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Skull, Leeks, and Pitcher

There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.

For anyone who puzzles about how random or intentional our behaviour really is or the power of self narrative to create apparent identity and coherence, then this article by the philosopher, Galen Strawson is a thought provoking read.

As I get older, I’m more comfortable with fragments than coherence. Not sure why.

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Natural energy storage

It’s good to be reminded every now and then how plants do energy storage over long time periods much more effectively than we ever can with batteries. The process is less efficient but the lengthy time shifting is invaluable from summer to winter, say.

A Lapland farmer, for example, is growing enough rapeseed oil in the perpetual summer daylight to provide power for his machinery all year around and he can still export a surplus. “People are shocked when I tell them I grow rapeseed and mustard but because of our geographical position we have an extra growing month. In the summer the 24/7 light means that the rapeseed shoots up by 2cm a day.

But there’s no mention of solar panels because they, coupled with battery storage, wouldn’t make any sense when you have 6 months of daylight and 6 months of night. But 12,000 litres of rapeseed oil grown and harvested in the summer sunshine can store 100MWh of  energy for operating his machinery throughout the entire year.

Impressive.

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Open eyed or open minded?

Are you open to new experiences and interpretations? Able to see both sides of an argument or imagine a different way the world could be? Do you quickly spot the humour of ambiguous situations?

At one time in my (increasingly) ancient past, I was a visual scientist and remember running experiments on binocular rivalry. Binocular Rivalry occurs when two different images are presented to our two eyes simultaneously. What tends to happen is people’s perception flips between one image and the other as their brain completely suppresses first one image then the other. But occasionally it can result in the two images blending into one.

Binoc Rivalry

Binocular Rivalry stimuli

A fascinating recent study has explored whether people who are high on the personality trait of Openness to Experience (as characterised by more flexible and creative thinking) are more likely to blend the perception of the right and left eye images in binocular rivalry experiments.

And it seems they are!

Presented with red versus green striped images in either eye, people who scored higher on a standard measure of Openness to Experience reported seeing a combined left/right eye image more often than lower scorers.

So, the question which fascinates me is which comes first – the visual system’s facility to combine two competing images into a single percept or one’s wider social and cognitive comfortableness with such unresolved ambiguity?

Read the original study (June 2017) here.

 

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Enjoying disorder

brainHaving published my own research on messy desks and knowledge workers an age ago in  1994, it was pleasing to see that people are still exploring this fascinating subject. This more recent article explores some of the benefits of living and working without being too over orderly, tidy or over-prepared.

A degree of jumble between projects, activities, ideas, conversations and objects is certainly a guaranteed way to spot new and surprising connections.

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1 Year domestic solar storage data

Bert DisplayWe have now had our 6kWh Wattstor solar battery (nicknamed ‘Bert’) for a full 12 months. (It actually holds 12kWh but only half of that is used by the system.) It was installed by Gwent Energy CIC. Previously, we simply had a 4kW array of solar PV panels on our house in the Brecon Beacons so only benefited from using the power generated whilst the sun was actually shining. The rest was exported to the grid.  Our PV panels face WSW and we do have a large hill and some trees behind the house. There are two of us living in the house and we work from home. We cook on electric Twizy at Tor-y-foeland also have a Renault Twizy which does ~3000 miles a year (all our local journeys) which consumes around 430 kWh a year.  As it happens, the Twizy also has a 6kWh battery and there are times when Bert and the Twizy are in direct competition for the solar power. We try to avoid the Twizy charging directly from Bert, the Wattstor battery, as that would involve two lots of battery cycles. But managing charging the two to optimal effect is complicated. Certainly it has left us questioning the practicality of using one’s electric vehicle as one’s domestic storage.

So firstly, here are the kWh totals for the year (May 2016 to April 2017).

totals

We have consumed 2,842 kWh of electricity in the year (averaging 7.8 kWh/day on a fairly consistent basis). As it happens, our solar PV has generated almost exactly the same amount as we’ve used (2,965 kWh). We have imported 1,248 kWh from the grid and exported 1,096 to it. Our batteries are currently lead acid. With a larger battery pack plus a more efficient type, then we would be able to capture and use more of the solar energy generated and export less to the grid. Lead acid batteries only use 50% of their capacity and protect themselves by stopping providing power to the house long before they are empty.  We hope to upgrade the batteries at some point in the future.

The next chart shows the overall percentage of power which has come from each source.

Whole Year 1

Effectively, the introduction of the battery store has doubled the amount of solar PV energy which we use compared to previous years when we only had the solar panels. So that’s good. In terms of savings, we buy our electricity from Good Energy at 14p/unit so the battery store has saved us £110 this year meaning that the addition of storage isn’t currently an economic winner but does mean that you get twice the benefit from the solar you generate.

The next 2 charts show the performance pattern across the year from last May.

Year averages

Our demand has stayed relatively steady across the year apart from when we have been away from home. The solar generation inevitably falls right down in the winter months – December’s nadir being a mere 2.3 kWh/day (however that is still more then 25% of our demand). The best month for solar generation happened to be May last year but May/June/July are all fairly similar with the length of day and the angle of the sun high in the sky. April is now getting back up to those levels. As the solar drops, the amount we import from the grid inevitably rises. The only slight surprise (and disappointment) for us was the proportion we exported to the grid in the depths of winter as we’d obviously prefer for all excess to be stored by the battery. This happens because the batteries mostly operate on absorption charging and any excess is therefore exported despite the battery having plenty of storage capacity.

The final chart shows the percentage of power from each source month by month over the year.

Year percentages

From May to August, we were happily living off grid for days at a time with the solar PV covering all our demand during the day and Bert-the-battery supporting us through the hours of darkness. And in deepest darkest December, the solar plus battery still covered 16% of our demand moving up to just over 30% in February and 50% in March.

One side effect of having solar PV plus storage, is it makes you much more aware of the energy you use in the house – especially when cooking supper (for example) rapidly empties a battery that you spent most of the day filling! In particular, it certainly makes one less blase about owning an electric vehicle. The good news is that the Twizy (because it’s so small and light) consumes only 140 Wh/mile. Given the power and weight of a Tesla Model S, for example  it would happily wipe out Bert’s 6kWh store in minutes!

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