A lot of soul-searching is going on in Corona-times. Many of us crave and dread the ‘back to normal’ at the same time. ‘Normal’ is equivalent then to the feeling of being sentenced to a precarious slot on an ever accelerating hamster wheel, to the feeling of murderous guilt that accompanies our unsustainable lifestyles. We don’t really want that. But how to escape the predicament? There I seem to pick up a deep undercurrent of fatalism. The juggernaut is poised to steam on, taking us, current and future generations, off the cliff. Where is the lever for change? What can we do, in our own limited sphere, to improve our own quality of life and contribute to the sustainability of our planetary habitat? In his 2007 book ‘Simple Prosperity. Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle’ (*), American writer and activist David Wann presents a cogent answer to that question for the emotionally torn and disempowered members of middle-class communities.
I have summarised the whole 280-page long book in a single diagram. The diagram represents what is called in systems thinking a nested set of reinforcing loops. It comes down to a dynamic that is able to sustain itself over time. Not a hamster wheel that depletes our energy, but a gentle perpetuum mobile that just continues to replenish our resilience.
The linchpin of that movement is the variable Time Affluence. Here is a key paragraph from the book:
“Time is a natural resource. Like oil or copper, there’s only so much of it available — eighty-five years for each of us if we’re lucky, divided into twenty-four-hour (sometimes frantic!) parcels. When some new, time-consuming activity comes along, like deleting endless spam e-mails, creating new passwords we’ll soon forget, or waiting in line for three-dollar gas, we don’t usually ask ourselves where the time comes from to do these extra things. The truth is, time is often borrowed from important life functions, such as maintaining strong relationships or cooking healthy meals from fresh ingredients. The more time we need to borrow, the less is available for the things that make us great.”
The diagram shows what happens when we are mindful of our time, and rather than to borrow it, we start to invest it in what really matters: paying attention to what we eat, engaging in more leisurely, healthier ways of commuting and traveling, reconnecting with nature, investing in the development of our skills and relationships. In doing so we expand our space for personal growth. We become healthier, more confident human beings.
This prepares the ground for engaging in meaningful work. We groom ourselves to exercise leadership in our communities and to take up our civic duties. All this contributes to more trustful social relationships, to a sense of security and mental wellbeing.
Now comes an important link in the chain of interdependencies: the feeling of poise and belonging that results from our investment in the stocks of wellbeing provides us with a solid basis to judge our priorities from and to adopt a Sufficiency Mindset. In his book Wann talks about the benefits of ‘right-sizing’: having enough, avoiding that material possessions and real estate, and the financial commitments that go with them, become a burden to body and spirit.
Time affluence allows us to build confidence, soundness of judgment and the ability to enjoy multi-dimensional satisfactions from simple things in life. That prepares us for a sufficiency mindset. And the sufficiency mindset is the wellspring of time affluence. Having less, without having to worry about the basic necessities of life, creates an inviting space in our calendars in which to make choices to invest in the stocks of wellbeing. And so on, ad infinitum, or at least until we are invited to take our leave from this earthly abode.
David Wann’s counsel is simple, straightforward. You can’t argue with it. And it is within reach of any middle-class individual who feels choked by affluenza, pressured by financial overreach, disappointed by the unfulfilled promises of careerism.
This is the empowering question on which the soul-searching as a result of the COVID-19 meltdown has to zoom in:
How can I create for myself the space to start really investing in the stocks of wellbeing, so that I become a more healthy and balanced person and a more valuable member of my community?
Once the process to answer the question has been set in motion, a more sustainable future is certain to emerge.
(*) Don’t forget to order David Wann’s book from your local bookstore (or borrow it from your community library). He’s a generous man who writes with humour and panache. His way of telling the story is bound to inspire you.