From well-being to well-living:
Towards a post-capitalist understanding of quality of life
Australians are told that they live in one of the top 10 richest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita, and that they enjoy a level of ‘well-being’ or ‘quality-oflife’ higher than many other advanced societies. Australia is ranked third after Norway and Denmark on the OECD Better Life Index, a new index developed to measure nations’ wellbeing more inclusively than the older methods that focused on wealth or income. This index includes non-monetary aspects of social life such as employment, environment and education.
Although such shifts in our understanding of wellbeing must be welcomed, the concept of wellbeing hasn’t been liberated from its underlying hegemonic political agendas, and has become even more complicated by an increasing public, state and corporate interest.
For many people, happiness is increasingly evaluated by digital tools that constantly monitor a wide range of variables – daily step targets, calorie intake, stress level, spending habits, etc. – providing an incredible source of income to the towering ‘happiness industry’. 1
Tracking our personal health and ‘life goals’ has become a normalised and – sometimes obsessive – phenomenon. A popular intellectual project, with a strong technocratic tone, seems now to be at work to constantly assess, compare and promote people’s happiness.
Yet the question of how to realise a good life as a ‘state of being’ and/or to evaluate what a good life ‘achieves’ (either subjectively or objectively) is an ancient one. So are the disagreements – especially for elite thinkers in both the Western and Eastern antiquities. These elites were divided by a profound ambiguity known as the dualism of hedonic vs. eudemonic traditions.
The changing face of happiness
Hedonists defined happiness as obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain. A modern version of this approach argues that ‘being financially well-off’ (as an individual or a nation) would inevitably lead us to living well and happy.
In contrast, the eudemonists equated wellbeing with the actualisation of human potentials and positive functioning in the community. According to them, wellbeing is more than just happiness – in fact happiness might not even be present in situations associated with wellbeing, given that self-fulfilment is normally associated with hard work and pain.
The historical quarrel has centred on the question of which path humanity should pursue, and if these two ways of understanding wellbeing are incompatible after all.
Pre-capitalist dominant discourses answered this question by advocating the eudemonic way of life for the masses and recommending a relatively self-contained hedonic approach for the rulers, in order for the rulers to not overspend their popular legitimacy budget.
Virtual notions of wellbeing, manufactured through communitarian cultures and religious authorities, argued that it is merely through the individual’s submission to the pre-established rules, norms, traditions and values that the ultimate flourishing of self and the purpose of life can be achieved. The formula was/is that good faith = good fate, as if what counts as ‘flourishing’ is fixed for all time.
With the Western expansion of colonialist capitalism, the idea of hedonic
The question of how to realise a good life and/or to evaluate what a good life ‘achieves’ is an ancient one. So are the disagreements
wellbeing gained greater momentum over its eudemonic rival. The new ruling class recognised how the individual’s endless craving for pleasure and comfort can be a great source of profit and be leveraged by a system that assumes natural resources are infinitely exploitable.
The arrival of the holy dollar coincided in with the waning power of the religious authorities in Europe, and numerous secular and rationalist ideological machineries were set up to deal with the task of redefining happiness and wellbeing. New schools of thought emerged to provide the modern secular politics with a moral framework to define what human success looked like.
Contractualists, like Hobbes and Rousseau, based their moral framework on principles everyone would agree to in ideal situations and placed happiness as the standalone plan for this life within the framework of social contracts.
Liberal psychology held the individual responsible for finding the balance between reality and expectation ( happiness = reality – expectation); lower your expectation if reality is not on your side.
Utilitarianists went even further by turning wellbeing into a moral criterion, an ultimate aim of this life, a rightness of actions that cannot be questioned. Utilitarian wellbeing ( pleasure – pain = wellbeing) had a
strong social dimension (maximum pleasure for maximum number of people) but its definitions of pain and pleasure remained highly subjective, too demanding to be feasible and the efforts to quantify it through universal indexes turned out to be impractical to many critics, including the Critical Social Sciences.
Critical Social Sciences have raised the question of the distribution of wellbeing and the diversity of contexts, and highlighted the politics behind this intellectual project. Despite the existing disputes and diversities, many of the competing Western approaches, whether orthodox or heterodox, share a number of underlying assumptions, and almost all tend to be based on dominant rationalist Western/northern perspectives. 2
With the demise of the ‘welfare state’, after the free market revolution in the 1980s, the idea of improving individual’s ‘wellbeing’ was sold to the public as the ultimate goal of the so-called ‘caring corporate capitalism’.
This sentiment continues today, with ‘social welfare’ increasingly seen as a burden too heavy for the state to carry alone in this age of lower taxes for the rich. In a cunning twist, a promising new image of ‘wellbeing’ has emerged, one that fully devolves responsibility for an individual’s wellbeing onto the individual while creating new faith in the magic of market and capital. This
The formula was/is that good faith = good fate, as if what counts as ‘flourishing’ is fixed for all time.
independent consumer model of wellbeing further reduces the role of the state to simply a provider of institutional support for the market in its mission to maximise wellbeing for all. Both the centre right and the centre left political forces in the West share a great deal of interest in this project.
Ironically, the eruption of the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008 did not weaken the modern wellbeing discourse. Rather, it helped the discourse to become even more sophisticated by bringing elements of the eudemonic tradition back in the form of shared suffering for the communal good.
Whereas economics has historically been defined as the science of managing scarce resources, post-gfc progressive revisionists are shifting the focus from ‘measuring’ production to ‘measuring’ quality-of-life; “the goal of economics is [now] to enhance our well-being”. 3
This move has also played well in the hands of economic conservatives. If wellbeing is more than happiness, and require sacrifices and pain to achieve a higher status of self-flourishing and maximum pleasure for the majority, then economic austerity can be morally justified.
Yet the more people are delinked from the state’s protection under austerity regimes, the more they become dependent on non-state forces to pursue happiness: from positive psychologists, to the fitness industry, to alternative medicine, to the giant debt industry that encourages consumers to spend even in an age of fewer state safety nets and economic stagnation.
The more the public sector is colonised by the corporate sector – through privatisation or controlled by managerialist technocrats from within – the more the acquirement of ‘wellbeing’ (as a process or outcome) will primarily become the responsibility of the individual.
This de-politicisation of own personal wellbeing and health clearly serves the interest of the ruling class and their policy makers, by blaming the individuals for their so-called bad choices. Societies however have not been apathetic towards the commodification of wellbeing (i.e. treating wellbeing and health as commodity). Reclaiming the commons, the state, and public spaces where the ‘quality of life’ is mainly determined, has been one of the major demands of many recent progressive movements. Such movements have inspired many of their actors to rethink the mainstream notions of wellbeing.
Transformative movements against neoliberal globalism, mostly from the global South, have questioned the wellbeing discourse since the early 2000s, by highlighting cultural specificities, the centrality of communal life, and the criticality of ecological environments. 4
These are all issues that can hardly be measured, let alone be addressed, by the mainstream Eurocentric approaches to wellbeing.
In the early 2000s, as one example among many, the augmenting indigenous movements in post-neoliberal Latin America (Ecuador and Bolivia) – drawing on the legacy of their precapitalist living epistemes and post/ colonial experiences – raised the idea of buen vivir, sumak kawsay, or suma qamaña (‘living well together’) and struggled to translate it into government policies or legislative reforms.
Despite the inbuilt tensions within the discourse and the political complications, the core idea is that nature, community and individuals all share the same metaphysical or spiritual dimension. Therefore, achieving and
maintaining a psycho-spiritual state
THE CORE IDEA IS THAT NATURE, COMMUNITY AND INDIVIDUALS ALL SHARE THE SAME METAPHYSICAL OR SPIRITUAL DIMENSION.
The more people are delinked from the state’s protection under austerity regimes, the more they become dependent on non-state forces to pursue happiness.
Well-living is about enhancing the capacity of individuals to care for and to promote the wellbeing of their communities and their environment in the most collaborative way possible.
of harmony within the self (among its different functions like reasoning and emotions) and between selves and nature, is a virtuous and thereby a self-fulfilling way of life that needs to be pursued at all levels from the personal to the political.
In response to the paradoxes and inadequacies of mainstream wellbeing discourses, and inspired by such radical transformative voices in the global South that advocate for post-neoliberal futures, I aim to initiate an argument
6 for both the plausibility and indispensability of a profound shift in our understanding of people’s wellbeing.
‘ Well-living’ (a term I coin and advocate for here) can function at least as a dialogical potential, to represent a transition in how we understand what quality of life is without creating contradictions between the individual and the communal, the material and the subjective. Well-living is about enhancing the capacity of individuals to care for and to promote the wellbeing of their communities and their environment in the most collaborative way possible, through genuinely democratic or consensual mechanisms.
The question here is not primarily about how far ‘my’ ecological and communal conditions are suitable to ‘me’ to obtain more pleasure and avoid pain (according to the hedonic views) or even to fulfil ‘my’ true self (according to the self-oriented eudemonic perspectives). Well-living, at the societal level, is not just a sum or average of individuals’ wellbeings.
Well-living, as a general framework rather than a fixed notion, is about (1) enabling the Self and Others, (2) diversifying experiences, (3) promoting equality and self-sufficiency, (4) promoting reciprocity and conviviality, and (5) a peaceful coexistence. I would like to warn, from the outset, that such an idea must not be turned into another reified notion (even with a dissenting gesture).
Well-living can only be realised in a society where all individuals have equal access to the opportunities and resources necessary to meet their basic needs, achieve sustainable comfort and refinement without compromising the planet’s ecological capacity to sustain itself and life, and to achieve a persisting harmony with nature (now the most oppressed, voiceless entity in human history).
Well-living is therefore about the creation of harmony within the individual, between the individuals and between the culture and nature. This state of harmony however cannot be achieved when there are many forces of disharmony, like capitalism and consumerism, at work. This therefore inevitably becomes a grassroots political project – partly a political demand from below for a non-reformism reform of the state and economy, and partly a collective practice that can be exercised through community building wherever possible.
Can well-living coexist with capitalism? Well-living cannot be universally defined or determined. Rather it needs to be defined contextually according to cultural systems that give meaning and purpose to life and create social bondages, given that they are subject to open deliberations within public spheres.
Therefore, the complexities of every given context will be taken into account when operationalising well-living as an abstract notion into a praxis. Moreover, it is not the level of access to the means of production and subsistence that determine well-living but more how democratically the access and control is determined.
Such a non-capitalist notion of ‘quality of life’ is needed to become the center of our transformative grassroots projects when imagining or planning alternative modes of livelihood and sociability beyond, carbon, capital and growth.