Excerpted from The Good-Enough Life by Avram Alpert. Copyright © 2022 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
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Our world today is being consumed by a heartbreaking paradox: there is too much, and yet there is not enough. We live amid unprecedented abundance and productive capacity, yet billions go unfed, unclothed, and uncared for. Thus, in a world that has a combined $399.2 trillion in wealth, more than 3.4 billion people still live on less than $5.50 a day, while 34.5 million people a year die from a lack of adequate healthcare, and around 9 million more pass away due to hunger.[i]
Meanwhile, machines do more of the necessary work for sustaining life than ever, and yet we have so little leisure time. There are more people alive now than ever, and yet so many of us are alone. We benefit from centuries of wisdom and scientific advances for promoting happiness, and yet we are burdened by anxiety and depression. Indeed, not only is the number of people with depression rising, but so is the average number of years that people report feeling depressed. Anxiety and burnout are also on the rise.[ii]
We have the capacity to go all over the earth, to the depths of the oceans, and even into space, and yet those very means of exploration are depleting the sustainability of our home planet. Every year we are taking nearly double what the Earth is able to regenerate on a yearly basis.[iii]
I believe that many of these paradoxes are generated by what I call “greatness thinking,” that is, a vision for ordering the world in which some humans are considered better and more important than others, humanity as a whole is considered greater than nature, and our task as individuals becomes to prove ourselves worthy of possessing power and priviledge.
Desiring greatness makes a lot of sense, but it also generates the anxieties and paradoxes of the world we live in. When some have too much and many have too little, there is tremendous pressure to either rise to the top or sink to the bottom.
To get beyond the paradoxes of greatness, we have to understand where it comes from. There are many sources, including the fact that humans evolved from both bonobos (a cooperative species) and chimpanzees (a competitive species). When we rely on greatness thinking, it is our chimpanzee side asserting itself.
There is a logic to this beyond mere replication of our DNA. Hierarchical orders appear to be meaningful responses to the fact that life is imperfect. Accidents, tragedies, and failures befall us all. Greatness responds by saying, “Don’t worry, we can overcome this: though the world as it is may be flawed, humans have the capacity to eventually remove the blemishes of our condition.” To do so, we simply have to encourage the most talented among us—the great ones—to innovate and create and explore. They will push past the limits of our ecosystem and create a flourishing world for the rest of us. To incentivize them to do so, they should be given tremendous wealth and power.
And in order to find out who these great ones are, we should have a fiercely competitive society where everyone is trying to prove why they are the greatest. To become great is to feel justified in being spared from suffering some real portion of life’s calamities: because you are improving life for everyone (whether by creating wealth, entertainment, or inventions), all of your rewards are justified.
Desiring greatness thus makes a lot of sense, but it also generates the anxieties and paradoxes of the world we live in. When some have too much and many have too little, there is tremendous pressure to either rise to the top or sink to the bottom. And in such a world, we will inevitably feel anxious at our prospects, depressed at our situation, alienated from our fellow competitors, and unconcerned with how we damage the environment if doing so feels like the only way to stay alive.
Also on the Forum Network: Mapping the Road to a Better Future of Work and Wellbeing: Why the goal is human flourishing in work and care by Brigid Schulte, Director, Better Life Lab & Molly Martin, Director of Strategy, New America
Although there is a deep logic in our psyches and societies for the greatness worldview, we are not condemned to it. There is another way of seeing things that is full of potential today and that can bring us out of these frightening paradoxes. I call it “a good-enough life for all” (based on Donald Winnicott’s idea of the “good-enough parent”). That phrase combines a few different meanings. Like greatness, it begins with a recognition that life is imperfect.
Unlike greatness, however, it denies the claim that only a worthy elite can help us improve our conditions. By supporting only the pursuit of greatness, we are not in fact advancing as much as we could because we are suppressing the vital energies and capacities of the bulk of humanity and wasting our time and passion competitively trying to prove that we are among the great few. There are almost always many more talented and qualified people for a job than the number of available positions. We can stop letting this circumstance lead to depression and unemployment, and shift our focus to working cooperatively, harnessing the abilities of 7.7 billion good-enough human beings. If we all try to be good enough, rather than great, we can individually do less while gaining as much, if not more. Not only will the material quality of life for most humans improve, but so will their happiness and social cohesion.
Projects like the OECD’s Better Life Initiative, the Global Solutions Initiative’s SAGE Dashboard, and the UN’s Human Development Index guide us to develop a world where human beings can not only meet their basic material needs, but also their yearnings for care, meaning, and purpose.
This combination of decency in both quantity and quality of life is why a good-enough life for all is about both what is good and what is enough. A good-enough life for all means that everyone should have both goodness (decency, meaning, and purpose) and enoughness (good-quality, basic material needs). And because humans also have emotional and social needs, we need to understand that goodness and enoughness are always linked. Our lives cannot be good if we do not have enough to survive, and we cannot have enough if our lives are not also suffused with the goodness of our relations.
This is being increasingly recognized by international organizations creating new indicators for social well-being beyond GDP. Projects like the OECD’s Better Life Initiative, the Global Solutions Initiative’s SAGE Dashboard, and the UN’s Human Development Index guide us to develop a world where human beings can not only meet their basic material needs, but also their yearnings for care, meaning, and purpose.
To create this world for ourselves and future generations, we cannot take more from the earth than it is capable of producing. We don’t need to live in perfect harmony with nature, but we also don’t need to dominate it. Earth is not endlessly large, nor endlessly regenerating. It has its own limits, its own sense of well-being, its own material needs. What makes it miraculous is not its perfection, but the mere fact that it is good enough to sustain human life. We have to build our good-enough life within these good-enough conditions.
The good-enough life is “for all,” including the many species and vegetal lives with which we share this planet, because when we recognize that none of us is so great as to be able to overcome the terrors of this life on our own, when we understand that the kinks in our condition can best be borne through connections to our infinite kindred, then we appreciate that the most meaningful life available is one that recognizes and fosters our essential interdependence.
The final difference between a good-enough worldview and the greatness worldview is that good-enoughness does not claim we will ever fully overcome the limits of our conditions. Life is only ever good enough: even in a wonderfully harmonious society, we would still have mistakes, tragedies, disagreements, betrayals, natural disasters.
But in a good-enough world, there would be no great few who are spared the worst because of their status. We would all work to mitigate the suffering together. In the end, this is universally beneficial, because rather than existing in the anxious fear of needing to either rise to the top or sink to the bottom, everyone would have more time and leisure to appreciate the ordinary, good-enough pleasures of existence. Life at its best can never be more than good enough, but the way we live now, suffused with anxiety, inequality, and ecological destruction, is not yet good enough for all.
Are our lives getting better? How can policies improve our lives? Are we measuring the right things? Lear more with the OECD Better Life Initiative and the work programme on Measuring Well-Being and Progress, which allow understanding what drives well-being of people and nations and what needs to be done to achieve greater progress for all.
And check out also the work of the OECD Centre on Well-being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE)