Do you have everything you need to live a happy life? How about a fulfilling one?
Many of us feel we do not have the things we need to live in either of these ways. Across a variety of studies and surveys, a sizable number of us report that we lack one or more of the essential ingredients of a happy life, and that we see rich and fulfilling life is a distant and even unrealistic prospect.
One way of looking at these reports is to surmise that many of us express general feelings, or a persistent mood or outlook, of what is sometimes called scarcity, or insufficiency. Scarcity is either an objective state or subjective attitude that is in stark contrast to abundance, the presence and perception of richness in one’s life and larger environment. Interestingly, and as we will discuss, a smaller but significant percentage of us do report feelings of fulfillment and abundance in our lives.
And perhaps surprisingly, but critically for our discussion, these reported feelings of personal abundance often have only little to do with our objective circumstances.
Objective scarcity is fairly easy to define: it involves life conditions where we lack one or more elements essential to a happy and vital life. This can involve the most basic elements of natural human life, such as our needs for food, security, and fairness. Or it can involve conditions that fail to meet higher order human needs, including supportive relationships, opportunities for learning and growth, and social currency. In these and other cases, fairly well-understood deficiencies in our hierarchy of essential needs can be identified and measured empirically.
Feelings of scarcity are a more subtle phenomenon, however, and can be considerably independent of our objective circumstances as suggested above. A subjective sense of scarcity can be with regard to the world in general, or limited to conditions within our individual lives and social groups. Subjective scarcity is a sense that there are not enough of nature’s offerings to go around, or that these offerings are not distributed justly or predictably. Research suggests this sensibility can exist strongly despite personal or general conditions of objective abundance, or conversely, only weakly even amidst objective personal or group hardship and trial in the world.
But while feelings of scarcity can be more subtle and tenuous, they are at least as important as objective measures in creating conditions of abundance for all people. Such feelings are real and palpable within us, and can be powerful and even overwhelming in our lives. Just as when we possess a general attitude of abundance, sustained feelings or assumptions of scarcity can influence the quality of our lives and guide many of our most significant life choices. And this can be true even as these feelings and ideas remain unexamined in our lives, throughout our lives, and as they may prove objectively false, especially as they occur in the startling new human environment that is modern life today.
In fact, when we look at our individual lives and range of personal prospects more objectively, and more naturally, most of us can be shown now to have enough – and often far more than we need in the developed world – to live remarkably happy and fulfilling lives. Most of us today exist in objective conditions of actual or proximate abundance, in other words, even as we may dwell in subjective conditions of scarcity and want.
In this article, we will examine three topics related to this important theme: 1) the quite common gap today between our objective and subjective conditions of life 2) our true objective or natural needs for an intrinsically happy and fulfilling life, and 3) strategies for altering both our subjective outlook and objective circumstances, so that we may reliably move ourselves and others to an abundant state of life – life that is subjectively and objectively happier, healthier, more meaningful and progressive, and more fulfilling.
Our discussion will build on and use ideas from another, more foundational article of mine on this essential topic, entitled Finding Fulfillment. You may wish to review that article either before or after this discussion.
Scarcity and Abundance over Time
To begin to uncover our natural requirements for abundant and fulfilling human life, let’s consider a typical life, and typical ideas about abundant life, from four different perspectives.
Rather than focusing on differing views and outlooks on abundant life today, however, I’d instead like to compare our life and outlooks with those of earlier times in our history. This approach to examining alternative perspectives on abundance proves quite revealing, and offers important insights into the nature of fulfilling life, in our time and perhaps in all times.
So, in addition to outlining life and ideas about abundance in our time, I’ll offer similar portraits of how life and outlooks existed at three alternative points in our history: earlier in the industrial age, in the pre-industrial world, and in our original state in wild nature. As you will see, each of the four periods offers us a distinct picture of the typical boundaries of daily life, a unique set of met and unmet natural needs contained in this life, and particular ideals of what constitutes abundance (which, to the extent these idealized needs are or were unmet, work to trigger chronic feelings of scarcity in us):
> Life & abundance in our time – our starting point for exploring varying historical ideas about abundant life, and the deeper truths regarding human fulfillment that lies beneath this variation, is our own time. This is a good place to begin – both because we know our time well and because our current thinking forms a striking foundation with which to contrast earlier ideas of abundance. Today, we of course live in a global, Internet-based industrial society, and increasingly in a “super-sized” manner in much of the developed world. In the fully industrialized areas of the world, people of even average means often now live in larger and more elaborate homes, drive faster and more exotic cars, eat more calorie-rich and varied meals, and have more eclectic interests and experiences than ever before. We often pay dearly for this new mass luxury, however. This payment includes the trends toward longer working hours, increased indebtedness, smaller families and average household size, weaker social networks, and growing personal isolation. The newly wealthy among us fly in private jets, live in multiple locations around the world, and engage in unprecedented industrial-age effrontery and philanthropy, but still suffer many of these same modern personal ills. Common ideas about abundant life in the developed world today include:
- Freedom from work & financial worry
- Frequent & extended vacations
- An impressive home, car & clothing
- Varied & interesting friends
- Physical fitness & long life
- An attractive & adoring spouse
- Fame & acclaim (at least our 15 minutes)
As we can see from what should be a familiar list of aspirations from our time, current ideas of abundant life are in part a reaction to natural human needs unmet in the typical life of our era. Specifically, these include our natural human needs for free time, friendship, and freedom from anxiety. But our ideas about abundance are also in part a natural reaction to others, amidst our unnatural and advancing conditions of industrial wealth and inequality. This includes the sight, or thought, of others who enjoy greater wealth, more desirable friends and lovers, and higher status and notoriety than us. Importantly, we will see both these patterns again as we explore life in earlier epochs – but with different content specific to the epoch – and will discuss their quite important lessons for achieving abundant life, today and generally.
> Life & abundance earlier in the industrial age – if we turn our attention back to an earlier time in the industrial age, for example to the 1920s in what is now the developed world, we see similar and dissimilar patterns of life and notions of abundance, when compared to those of ours. Then, many people where in or entering the new middle-class and enjoying a higher standard of living than ever before, just as a small industrial elite was ascending in parallel and the gilded age of this time was only slightly tamped by earlier progressive-era legal and economic reforms. People increasingly lived in the emerging early suburbs of this time, especially in the United States, having migrated there from rural areas or from inner cities in the preceding decades. White-collar workers principally commuted to downtown work locations by railcar, though professional work in the new suburban towns was increasing, while blue-collar workers increasingly worked in new and larger industrial factories away from both city centers and suburban residential districts. The age of the automobile had of course begun by this time, but air travel was still comparatively rare. Though average household size was larger than today and extended families were still common, houses and apartments of this time were smaller than today on average and most families had either one car or no car at all. Common ideas about the abundant life included:
- Freedom from noise & stress
- A prosperous life in the suburbs
- Meeting family & social commitments
- A car & weekend drives in the country
- Obedient & upwardly-mobile children
- An efficient & dependable spouse
- The trappings of culture & taste
This list of aspirations, from a time just slightly before ours, is familiar and yet contains conceptions of abundance – “the good life” in the vernacular of this time – that are distinct and different than ours. The differences reflect the demands and reality of larger families, more intact traditional social networks, holdover values from earlier agricultural and nineteenth century mercantile life, and the more modest range of industrial products and consumption potential of the middle and working classes in this era. At the same time, there were considerable unmet natural needs in the typical life of this time – including needs for security, social currency, and freedom from stress – as well as significant differences in material wealth available to people. Together, these shortfalls in middle and working class life fueled new aspirations for upward mobility and a growing sense that more was needed materially for a happy life, even as this era was far more prosperous and flexible than earlier epochs for most people in the developed world.
> Life & abundance in the pre-industrial world – as we look back still earlier in time, to the many centuries of life preceding and leading up to the industrial revolution, we see a far more substantial divergence from our own time, both in the typical life of people and in common conceptions of abundance, even as key themes from industrial times are apparent. This long period of agricultural life, lasting up to 100 centuries in many parts of the world, is most notable for its generally unchanging quality, especially from a modern standpoint. Large city-states certainly rose and fall, and science and technology gradually improved, but much more of life was consistent during this extended time. In the agricultural age, there was often a dramatic two-class social structure – with a very small number of land-controlling aristocrats and monarchs possessing moderate to exorbitant wealth, and a vast majority of land-working peasants with almost no wealth or potential for social mobility. There were important (and enabling) exceptions to this two-class rule, of course, notably a bridging middle class of merchants, instructors, priests, and foot-soldiers. But the life of a typical person of this time was as a peasant. His or her existence was nearly always a subsistent one, involving daily work on the land or in the home throughout much of the year, with significant commitments of time and resources to kin, village, lord, and church. This extended and persistent form of human life was also marked by recurring food shortages, crippling epidemics and untreated diseases, ethnic and opportunistic wars, and oppressive political and theological rule. Household size was large by today’s standards, with substantial families the norm both to work the land productively and to offset much higher mortality rates, even as the typical peasant’s home was one of perhaps two or three rooms at most. Households could be expected to have small livestock by their village-based home, and perhaps a cow or ox, but ownership of a horse and/or carriage was often beyond the means of average people. In this extraordinarily different setting than our own, and the extended condition of much of the settled world before modern times, ideas about abundance varied somewhat but frequently included:
- Freedom from hunger & disease
- Physical safety & personal freedom
- Reduced hours of hard physical labor
- A multi-roomed house and horse & carriage
- Healthy & obedient children
- Supportive family & friends
- An efficient & dependable spouse
- Festival & enjoyment
- Kingly or aristocratic life
As before, these ideas of abundant life are partly a reaction to hardships and unmet needs in the life a typical woman or man, and partly to the presence and lure of an insular upper caste living in a very different material state. Since the material status of people of this time, excepting a very small number of people, was quite impoverished by today’s standards, expectations for material comfort were also often quite modest and aspirations at a level far below that enjoyed by a typical middle-class family in the developed world of our time. Focus was instead more often on the elimination or transcendence of hardship and external threats, a state of affairs we usually enjoy and often take for granted today.
> Life & abundance in our original state in nature – turning our attention back even earlier –to our long natural life before the rise of agriculture and the settled state of life we take as given today – brings into focus a pattern of human life and conceptions of abundance that are very different than those of our time and the other two epochs we have discussed. Yet, certain common themes and ideas remain, even in this more very distant backward look and far longer and more primitive mode of human life. Our time of natural life in fact spans perhaps ten million years – a period more than 50,000 times longer than our industrial age and 1,000 times that of earlier agrarian life. In this long and original human epoch, our ancestors lived in small hunter-gather bands of perhaps 30-50 people, moving continually between encampments and dwelling principally on the rugged savannas of Africa. Since our life was a mobile one and we lacked domesticated pack animals, we were naturally compelled to carry what we owned. We thus had few possessions, and instead fashioned tools and implements amidst our incessantly moving life. In this time, we were thus also material equals, even as there was role specialization and differing levels of status within our bands and kin networks. Importantly, even compared to the hardships of early civilization, our natural environment was an especially challenging one. Though life often required only four hours of work per adult each day, life on the plains of Africa required and kept us in high states of natural fitness and readiness for action. Our survival mandated strong social cohesion and cooperation within our band, for defense against both formidable herd and predatory animals, and other bands of people. Because of this imperative of cohesion, social reciprocity and intimacy were essential and actively reinforced in daily life (and by genetic selection). Since we lacked the possibility of material holdings, had only rare needs for extended daily labor to acquire food and shelter, and survival depended on social cohesion, our daily life was evolved to be a relatively free and gregarious one, even as it was naturally constrained in important ways and subject to regular threats to our safety. In this essentially classless, often joyful, and regularly precarious life before settled and acquisitive human life – which we know something of through the study of hunter-gather bands still intact at the dawn of modernity – recurring conceptions of abundant life likely included:
- Physical safety & freedom from threats
- High quality food and water supplies
- Proficiency in hunting & gathering
- Sheltering & panoramic encampments
- Supportive kin & band members
- An efficient & dependable spouse
- Healthy & capable children
- Daily amusement & enjoyment
These conceptions of abundant life in nature are different than the other epochs discussed in an important way, reflecting the absent prospect of elevated material holdings and our generally egalitarian and communal state of human life in wild nature. This important (and still largely unappreciated) fact of natural life removes from consideration ideas of abundance related to superior or differential material status and comfort – ideas, as we have seen, that find a recurring and often powerful influence on definitions of abundance in the later epochs we discussed. At the same time, we can see that a number of our initial themes related to abundant life do carry back all the way to our long original life in wild nature (and, in fact, even back to our earlier pre-human life before this time).
These natural and recurring conceptions of abundance include physical safety, food quality, shelter, skilled pursuits, supportive relationships, learning and teaching, environmental engagement, and social enjoyment. All are suggestive of our basic human needs and natural requirements for abundant life, especially once two features of later forms of human life are striped away: 1) highly differentiated status and material inequality, and 2) the opportunity to pursue our natural needs – for example, provisioning, movement, shelter, and amusement – through novel, technologically-enabled means.
Subjective, Objective & Social Abundance
So, what does this consideration of life and prevailing ideas about abundance, today and in earlier times, teach us about abundant life, in all times? And how can this discussion guide us personally, so that we might better ensure abundant and fulfilling life today?
For me, there are many significant lessons from this exercise, offering lasting insights into the essential nature of human abundance and how we can reliably create this condition in our individual lives and times. Here are six important ideas to consider:
1. Abundance changes and doesn’t change – I mentioned before that several core or natural human needs emerge from our exercise examining life and conceptions of abundance at different points in our history. These more unchanging contributors to abundant life, and inhibitors of conditions or feelings of scarcity, include: a) physical safety, b) food quality, c) shelter of one sort or another, d) skilled pursuits relevant to an epoch, e) environmental and social engagement, f) supportive relationships, g) learning and teaching, and h) daily enjoyment of life. At the same time, we can see from our exercise that the specific ways these needs can or might be met vary considerably by circumstance or epoch. If we take skilled pursuits as an example, we can both acknowledge this unchanging need and see the potential for this natural need to be fulfilled in the varying skills of the hunter-gatherer, the farm worker, the industrial worker, and now, the information-age worker. Thus, the imperative of skilled and engaging effort in the world can be seen as a persistent facet of fulfilling human life, while allowing room for this effort to evolve over time and with environmental needs. From this insight, a specific but adaptive list of this and all our natural needs can be constructed, one that turns out to be quite modest from an industrial-age perspective. From our discussion, we must also add that subjective conceptions of abundance can also vary widely and may be frequently at odds with deeper and unchanging objective truths of human abundance. This potential gap between our subjective and objective states can lead people to frame and respond to their environment in less than optimal ways, to seek goals that are objectively superfluous or detrimental to abundant life in their time, or to experience unnecessary and painful subjective scarcity, simply because of gaps between their expectations and the facts of their life.
2. Inequality can reduce abundance – as suggested already, changes in material and social equality have a substantial impact on the nature of abundance. These effects exist partly in the realm of feeling and emotion, as our natural instincts for status, esteem, and belonging encourage us to define abundant life with regard to those possessing greater wealth and higher social standing. But these feelings have a practical and objective counterpart too. In social settings with significant inequality, real benefits and life opportunities accrue to people and families with higher wealth and social currency, while low status and material poverty can lead to conditions of low social currency, greatly reducing personal opportunity and quality of life. For example, in a society dominated by automobile transportation, people lacking an automobile may face significant impediments to achieving a satisfying life and meeting their natural needs – including more limited prospects for learning and skilled work, poorer food and shelter options, and greater exposure to threats to personal safety. Similarly, and as we can see in our history, in a society dominated by a small number of wealthy aristocrats subject to different standards of conduct, it is possible for a majority of people to lack adequate social currency and realize a far lower and intractable state of life than is possible, given available technology and resources.
3. Abundance exists in three forms – from our discussion, it is clear that abundant life exists in objective terms, even if these life conditions are not always correctly perceived or felt subjectively as personal abundance once they are achieved. We can define objective abundance as conditions that meet our natural needs for fulfilled life, but always in our specific social and technological context – that is, in response to environment and surroundings. We have enumerated these natural needs already, and also discussed how their fulfillment can change in different historical epochs and circumstances. At the same time, it is clear from our discussion that ideals of abundance beyond this objective level can exist in all epochs – via tug of status as mentioned above, but also through the lure of imagination and novel and technologically-based avenues for need fulfillment. For these reasons, creating abundant life for ourselves is partly subjective, involving more clearly understanding our true needs for fulfillment and correctly perceiving elements that support our natural needs in our present life. But abundant life is also partly objective, requiring that we structure our lives and surroundings to meet our natural needs – as in the cases of ensuring skilled endeavor that is meaningful and relevant in our time, or of acting to ensure social currency for ourselves. And finally, abundance also has a social component, requiring collective action and public investment by society to create conditions where social currency and abundant life are optimally fostered or safe-guarded. Today, this involves moving society back to and then through transition points where undesirable inequality is reduced and quality of life increases greatly for all, and to new states where abundant life can be achieved in ways that are more ecologically-sustainable and less harmful to others. Historical inequality, and its recurring patterns of both public and environmental disinvestment, offers stark testimony of our perennial need to attend to the social dimension of abundance.
4. Abundance is possible at modest consumption levels – our examination of abundance in different epochs also suggests that fulfilling life can be created at quite modest consumption or resource levels by modern standards, as long as social currency is achieved and as long as there is sufficient social investment to ensure security and the other collective dimensions of objective abundance we have discussed. In our time, such investments include ensuring food and environmental quality, encouraging sustainable and diverse community and economic development, and educational promotion and financing. Adequate public investment in these and other social and environmental contributors to abundance allows our personal concern to focus principally on meeting our objective needs for abundance and ensuring subjective attentiveness to the contributors to abundance in our life. The result is a natural meeting of the needed top-down and bottom-up drivers of general human abundance. In the next section of our discussion, I’ll propose a specific general lifestyle that can be expected to meet our natural needs and promote abundant life, in our modern epoch and perhaps in epochs to come. This lifestyle involves modest consumption levels (relative to much of the industrialized world today), but levels that are adequate to ensure social currency and the meeting of most or all of our natural needs (in our time at least). As you will see in this proposal, ensuring our personal foundation for abundant life is often far easier than we believe, especially amidst life in relatively free, equal, and prosperous social conditions, where there is wise and adequate public investment. And creatively meeting our natural needs for fulfilling life can and should be our principal focus as individuals in these conditions. Included in this is work is separating out false needs created from a subjective sense of scarcity, even as our objective needs for abundant life are readily met. False feelings of scarcity, however, should never be confused with very real concerns of unmet natural needs amidst wealth, for example owing to conditions of extreme inequality that objectively limit social currency or the adequate investment in society generally.
5. Extreme wealth today harms everyone – this may be the most controversial part of our discussion, but we should not shy away from discussing the historical and modern lesson that extreme relative wealth and highly unequal patterns of consumption work to reduce subjective, objective, and social abundance for all people. Lest I be accused of arguing against private wealth only, let me say that similar resources in the hands (and for the betterment) of cadres of public officials and political leaders is equally apt to have this effect. As counterintuitive as this idea may be at first, it is important to underscore that extreme wealth really does work to reduce overall abundance, both for those who lack wealth and even for those who possess it. There are three natural reasons for this. As we have discussed, the first is that highly unequal wealth creates objective conditions where at least some people lack sufficient social currency to flourish in a society. When especially pronounced, as in much of agrarian society before our time and in some industrial societies today, inequality can grow so extreme that great numbers of people are moved into objective scarcity and then a state of social disenfranchisement. In the world of our time, we can see that this trend can reach a tipping point, where wealth is dramatically consolidated and widespread social disinvestment occurs, despite adequate total resources in the society. The result is to reduce the opportunity of abundant life for a majority of people, necessitate oppressive social controls, and forcing life-limiting sequestration and insulation of the rich and poor. But far short of such draconian conditions, a second reason that significant unequal wealth reduces abundance is by promoting greater status-seeking behavior and encouraging consumption-based life for people who have adequate social currency and income. Conspicuous inequality, in fact, works to fuel a societal treadmill toward ever higher states of consumption and resource use in the pursuit of differentiation and feelings of subjective abundance, even to the point of causing significant social disinvestment. When this cycle appears amidst industrial society, objective abundance is soon reached and then eclipsed by personal goals and actions in service of chronic and unexamined feelings of scarcity. The result is increasingly elaborate and costly but superfluous patterns of consumption and display, ones that sidestep the fulfillment of our natural needs and ironically fail to provide subjective abundance for most people. This cycle of compounding but ultimately unsatisfying consumption and status-seeking is a now fairly well-studied industrial condition, one that has been termed “luxury fever” by behavioral economists. It unconsciously and far from optimally encourages greater focus on possession and extrinsic display, even as many natural and often simply-met needs remain unsatisfied (for example, achieving supportive relationships and reciprocal nurturing). The reliable result of this unfortunate but predictable human dynamic is a condition of chronically unfulfilled life and subjective scarcity amidst high resource use, and the companion ills of long-term ecological harm and social disinvestment. Finally, and in a very similar way, extreme wealth also generally fails to create abundance for those that possess high levels of wealth. In part, this is because they are either idle or preoccupied with the obligations of unnatural wealth and status, neither of which is apt to promote a focus on or the fulfillment of our natural and materially simple needs for abundant life. In part, it is because the very wealthy are often estranged from their general society and caught in competitive, unnatural, and unsatisfying relationships with other wealthy and status-focused people. And, in part, it is because of the selfish orientation and social disinvestment that extreme wealth fosters in the general society, in which the wealthy ultimately do live.
6. Far-reaching abundance is possible today, but requires new effort – I mentioned before that abundant life has three foundations – a subjective foundation, an objective foundation, and a social or contextual foundation. In our advanced technological society, and with our modern political institutions, we have the capability now to create social conditions where abundant life is far more widespread than it is today, and at much lower resource-use levels than are typical in our time. Using the emerging science of human fulfillment and for these reasons we have discussed, new public policies aimed at creating widespread human fulfillment and abundant life now can be pursued with expectations of eventual and quite dramatic success. As suggested, such policies should aim to: a) significantly increase the cost of luxury goods and services, and reduce extreme wealth and material inequality to objectively-stable levels, b) ensure sufficient social investment to promote sustainability, security, and provision of the other key social enablers of fulfillment we have discussed, and c) promote social currency for as many of people as possible. Policies in this direction are of course now being pursued in much of northern Europe, almost universally resulting in increased personal satisfaction, freedom, health, and longevity, as relevant scientific models predict. As we will see next, exploring a specific example of abundant life in our time, only modest material conditions are needed to achieve an extremely high-quality state of life – simultaneously promoting individual fulfillment and social and ecological sustainability – but only as long as conditions of destabilizing inequality and resulting trends towards social disenfranchisement and disinvestment are mitigated. With this perspective and new scientific models of human fulfillment in mind, I must add that pre-industrial social theories that advocated open-ended striving and pursuit material gain have proved not just incorrect, but now actively impede abundance and the optimization of our global society today. Regardless of how enlightened your own nation’s public policies may be at present, however, our example lifestyle will show that in all but the most extreme conditions of industrial society today, our attention can productively shift to a new approach to our individual lives, and to subjective and objective conditions we can control ourselves, allowing us to move directly, progressively, and rapidly to conditions of personal abundance. Let’s turn to this essential and final topic next.
Meeting Our Natural Needs Today
Leaving aside public policy considerations related to the promotion or maintenance of abundant life across our global industrial society, there are usually immediate and quite specific steps we each can take to promote more fulfilling and abundant lives for ourselves and those in our care, literally beginning today.
To illustrate this, and to help you explore your opportunities for greater abundance in your life, let’s consider the needs of a small family seeking to live in objective abundance today. For our discussion, we’ll assume the family has the archetypical nuclear structure of our time – a husband and wife, and a daughter and son. As you will see, the natural needs of this model family are quite revealing, and offer important insights for other family structures, whether larger, smaller, or less typical.
Based on our discussion of our natural human needs for abundant life, and the underlying science that supports these ideas, we can describe the essential needs of our model family of four as follows:
Natural needs of a family of four
- Three-bedroom home of ~100m2 (1100ft2)
- One or two 4-passenger cars, or public transport
- Seven to ten changes of clothes
- Combined diet of ~8,000 calories/day
- Opportunity for daily exercise
- Creative lifelong work for both parents
- Schooling for two children
- Network of 8-10 close friends
- Network of 3+ family members
- One or two hobbies per person
- Weekly activities & outings
- Regular vacation & personal time
- Medical care as needed
- Insurance for death or disability
Have I left out an essential item or two? Perhaps, but this approximate list is adequate to support the idea that all of the major elements of an abundant life can be obtained at fairly low resource levels and across most of the industrialized world today. Though the cost and specifics of these items will vary by locale and over time, a rough calculation (which assumes that both parents engage in lifelong skilled work) suggests that this lifestyle can be financed by about 1000 hours of annual work by each adult.
1000 hours of annual work is of course about half of what is typical in the industrialized world today. And it suggests a very different work schedule than is typical too – one of six hour days, four days per week, and spanning about forty weeks per year. As suggested by our discussion, this alternative approach to work is far more in keeping with our natural patterns of daily work, and far more enabling of key elements of our natural non-work life. And we can see in industrialized countries today having shorter work-weeks and more vacation time that such a work schedule can be expected to lead to much more extensive non-work activities and promote far greater subjective, objective, and social abundance (as long as material inequality is checked, and is not allowed to prevent this life pattern from having social currency or to foster runaway material wanting in society generally).
Can you see yourself in this new, industrial-age abundant lifestyle, meeting your essential materials needs in half the usual time, and then having new time to pursue the non-material needs that are as essential to our well-being and fulfillment? Though the steps to this alternative lifestyle may seem uncertain at first, or perhaps obscured by other “needs” we feel we must occupy ourselves with to maintain social standing with our peers, I suspect you can see its potential wisdom, as a model for yourself and for people more generally.
In my own experience – beginning as a typical urban affluent and then moving to this alternative lifestyle myself – I have found, unsurprisingly, that work arrangements prove the most critical consideration, even more so than the “down-shifting” in consumption that often is required (and which often proves much easier than we expect). Actually, the second top consideration usually turns out to involve the quality of our social network and the frequently needed process of adjusting our portfolio of friends and colleagues as we move into the new lifestyle. We very often find a need to de-emphasize certain peers who are not supportive of our new goals and choices, and then to put new emphasis on or find new friends who understand and share our desire for a more natural and rational approach to the challenge of achieving personal happiness and abundance today.
As you might expect, forms of work that support this decidedly less traditional lifestyle are also quite often, less traditional. But as you might not initially guess, our opportunities for these forms of work are now numerous, if not vast, especially today in our information age and wired economy. Finding new work mostly requires new creativity, planning and skill-acquisition, and ongoing personal engagement in and responsibility for one’s career. Of the many potential work options supporting this new lifestyle, many share several important characteristics:
Frequent “abundant work” characteristics
- Moderately to highly-skilled – requiring special education and/or experience
- Project or outcome-based – affording control over the amount and timing of work
- Enjoyable – using skills or creating outcomes that are personally rewarding
- Progressive – involving skills and practices that can improve over time
- Relevant – work that is and can be adapted to remain valuable to others
With these criteria in mind, I will encourage you to consider what new work opportunities might be available to you today, and thereby to begin to consider what more abundant life opportunities might waiting for you to create today.
In fact, if supporting this lifestyle is a concern, I will specifically challenge you to identify at least five new work options for you that meet all of the criteria, and then to decide which one(s) you will pursue. This pursuit begins by learning more about the occupation from existing practitioners, and then identifying what skills or training you need to acquire. You may ultimately decide that you want to pursue more than one option, or to combine your initial ideas in new, more interesting and fulfilling, and more valuable ways.
Moving to Abundant Life Now
Today, your life is as it is. Likely, it involves both abundance and scarcity – in the subjective, objective, and social forms. But perhaps there is more scarcity than you would like, and also an opportunity to increase subjective and objective abundance in your life, beginning today.
We are frequently advised to see the existing abundance within our lives. While this is important, especially when it involves a science-based understanding of our natural needs, I hope I have shown that truly abundant life involves more than attitude or perspective. As we have discussed, abundant human life has objective, subjective, and social dimensions that are all critically important. Ultimately, all three dimensions require our action – if new, widespread, sustaining, and progressing personal abundance is to be created in our lives and our modern world.
So, what should you do next?
To create a new, up-close, and personal perspective on your own state of abundance, you might start by listing out the essential material needs I proposed above, adjusting them as you feel is necessary for you and/or your family. Next, list your current circumstances next to each category, and then include items from your life today that have no counterpart in my proposed “essentials” list.
From there, look at the differences, highlighting the non-essential items in your life today, as well as those features of abundant life that are needed but not yet present for you. Developing an action plan (or natural life plan) then becomes a logical next step, to eliminate non-essential items and preoccupations and to bring in needed new items and life patterns. In your plan, it is always best to go line by line – calmly, pragmatically, but creatively focusing on what you will change or do, and when.
Once your action plan is drafted, I would encourage you to immediately take on one or two of the small items, to get experience and learning in both planning and the art of personal change. I would then encourage you to revisit your plan in its entirety each month, for several months, until it settles down and you are certain this is the plan you want to pursue. When your plan matures in this way, I would still encourage you to review it at least twice yearly, taking stock of your actions, their expected and unexpected impacts and lessons, and how your plan should be progressively adjusted.
In this way, you can begin to move creatively to your own unique personal expression of abundant life, beginning with small experiments in change in the short-term and moving to perhaps much larger changes in the way you live over time. As we discussed, these changes may involve altering your occupation and/or workstyle, as well as the reshuffling of some of your key relationships, and down-sizing or right-sizing your consumption patterns.
With the work of positive change, however, new and unexpected possibilities frequently present themselves to us, especially since we are apt to underestimate the power and impact of liberated free time and more informed personal choices. You may soon find a much greater ability to organize your time and choices around your most essential needs, including the nature-based triad of fulfilling human life I have written about elsewhere: 1) engagement, 2) endeavor, and 3) relationships.
Soon, and perhaps sooner than you expect, you may find yourself in a very different objective and subjective state. You may find this new state is one of much greater freedom, creativity, and control than earlier in your life. You may find a life that is more inspired, and more humbled and grounded too, and one that is far more fulfilling and lived closer to the heart than before. You may find that a life that is more play than work, even as it is work and celebrates skilled and dedicated endeavor.
You may find that you have created abundant life for yourself, in other words, and perhaps have realized that we all can have this life – that amidst industrial life, we can create conditions of widespread and self-sustaining abundance, for all people, and then even human superabundance.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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