I hear a lot of talk these days about our standard of living. Everyone has something to say about it.
Cosmopolitans worry that the American standard of living is too high. We were never going to be able to sustain it anyway, they say. Now we’re just settling into something that’s more realistic.
Policymakers try to define it. In the U.S., the government sets the bar by income. Over in the UK, the House of Commons lists specific possessions and purchases that should be attainable for the average family, such as “two pairs of all-weather shoes” and a one-week vacation away from home (Townsend, 2009).
But increasingly, people also talk about how inadequate this all is. It’s important, sure. Necessary. But what about the things that matter beyond a pair of Nike Airs in the closet and the size of your paycheck?
What do we need to be happy? Is happiness even a reasonable standard? And if so, how do we go about attaining it?
Some of the best answers come from returning college students in their 30s and 40s, who are trying to revamp their resumes. And when they talk about the loss of stability and the disappearance of their previous standard of living, many of them say, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me” or “I feel like anything is possible now.”
They’re not shy about how hard it is to rely on a spouse or savings account for financial support. But they all have visions for their future that they’re passionate about. Opening their own businesses. Taking a degree in social work. Finally finishing that degree they started 20 years ago. And that passion is infectious.
Sure, we need income and possessions and comfort included in our standard of living. But more than that, we also need a sense of purpose and accomplishment. The Chinese scholars of 500 to 1,000 years ago knew something that we’ve since lost in the modern world.
When they retreated to their mountain huts and monasteries to read and contemplate, I like to think that many did so out of a burning desire for knowledge. A certainty that they needed to do this.
Every village, in every age has its eccentrics.
And maybe if we each were a little more honest about our own whims and passions, the desire for our own mountain hut–whatever that might be–we, too, would discover that living isn’t about meeting these legislated standards of income, employment, and property. After we meet our basic needs and have a little bit to spare for a rainy day, there must be something more.
And maybe the best standard is a life in which we feel vibrantly alive and passionate, eager to work and to share those passions with others.