I listened to Seth Godin speaking about what he termed ‘The Culture of More’ recently. I always find his work - whether it’s one of his insightful microblogs at Seth’s Blog or one of his fascinating, pacy Akimbo podcasts - quick to engage with, thought-provoking and the perfect length when you’re on the go, as I often am.
In this episode, he picked apart what we mean by ‘normal’ ‘culture’ - two words we throw around an awful lot. It’s in our culture to want more, we tell ourselves, to be the best. And it’s ‘normal’ to work 60 hours a week to achieve this ‘normal’ goal. Working generates money, money equals more stuff, stuff makes us happy. That’s ‘normal’. That’s our ‘culture’.
I’m labouring the message slightly, but you get my point.
Well, Godin, looked at research conducted into the first ‘successful’ societies: hunter gatherer tribes and their bushmen. Bushmen who worked (hunting and gathering, that is), it transpired, for around 15 hours per week; the rest of their time was spent on leisure. In our capitalist society, we’re encouraged to want more than others, bigger house, nicer car, better holidays. Getting one up on our peers and colleagues feels like an achievement. Conversely though, in bushmen society, the group thrives when no one person is dominant or superior. You pool your resources, take what you need and leave what you don’t. And crucially, they felt they had all they needed in 15 hours of work per week.
Culture, Godin claimed, is the story we’re sold; the long-accepted myth we tell ourselves is ‘true’. ‘Working 60 hours is normal’; ‘Successful people drive a fancy car’; ‘A CEO needs a Rolex.’ We’re told that working harder, longer, flogging ourselves, doing more, more quickly for more money is the key to success - it’s normal. A hunter gatherer in a bushmen tribe would disagree completely.
And Seth’s question was, who is correct? Us, or the bushmen? And more importantly who is the happiest?
If we think about what truly makes us happy - we have far more chance of achieving real, lasting satisfaction. Our culture tells us the story of what’s normal and we internalise this to the extent that mantras such as ‘Buy More Things’ become our default motivators - but if the work, the commute, juggling childcare, sacrificing ethics and all-round selling-your-soul-to-the-devil isn’t making you happy, what can you do?
It’s simple. Change the story you are telling yourself.
Reinterpret things. Let’s take ‘I want more’ as an example - of course, it sounds like a capitalist mantra, justifying the 60 hour working week and the social and potential health sacrifices that go along with this. But what if ‘more’ means something different - more freedom, more leisure time, more creative opportunities? Couldn’t we make this our goal instead?
‘More’ might not even be about us or our lives, per se - it could be that ‘more’ is an ethical standard, for those who feel happiness comes from a clear conscience and a sense of being right with the world. With this definition of ‘more’ in place, we might look at our lifestyle and shopping habits and start scrutinising the production chain of the items we purchase from beginning to end. Are we satisfied with how everyone in the chain is valued and treated?
Let’s take a food product - say eggs, for example. If your definition of ‘having more’ means ‘buying food products where animals are respectfully reared and treated humanely’, then the conventional ‘more is more’ capitalist message doesn’t add up. Caged hens might produce more eggs over a period of time than free-range, non beak-tipped, organic hens, but many can’t reconcile the lower price of the product with the conditions the hens endure.
So some thoughts for today - ask yourself what constitutes your happy, and whether your life as it currently stands is aligned to those standards. If yes, congratulations!
And if it’s a no, then how could you rewrite the story?