The importance of sufficient lifestyles for a good life
Background, objectives, and research questions
Global consumption of natural resources – particularly non-renewable resources – continues to grow unabated, causing serious ecological and social harms. These hinder our ability to ensure a good life for current and future generations – one of the fundamental goals of sustainable development. So far, most attempts to address resource-use problems have relied on sustainability strategies of efficiency or consistency. The third possible strategy – namely sufficiency – has been greeted with caution or scepticism in many cases. Nevertheless, we believe that sufficiency is crucial, since the other two strategies are plainly incapable of tackling runaway resource use on their own.
The debate over sufficiency has mainly taken place in the context of individual lifestyle choices. In the project “The Importance of Sufficient Lifestyles for a Good Life”, researchers sought to examine how those practising sufficient lifestyles actually live, and how such lifestyles could be made more accessible to the broader population. As suggested by the project title, the question of what constitutes a good life was also central. We assumed that those prepared to alter their lives in such a way must also anticipate certain personal benefits from doing so. If research shows that sufficient lifestyles contribute significantly to a good life, it could eventually motivate others to arrange their lives in a similar way.
Our study investigated the following questions:
What do sufficient lifestyles look like in Switzerland, especially in the areas of mobility and everyday consumption? How do those practising a sufficient lifestyle conduct themselves, what attitudes and values motivate them, and what skills support their lifestyle?
What connections do those living sufficiently perceive between their lifestyle and their positive life satisfaction?
What factors promote sufficient lifestyles and what factors present obstacles?
How can sufficient lifestyles be anchored in the general population?
Definition of “sufficient lifestyle“
The term “sufficiency” is derived from the Latin sufficere and translates as adequate, enough. According to our definition, sufficient lifestyles are practised by people using below-average levels of resources in the areas of mobility and everyday consumption, who nevertheless view themselves as leading a satisfying life. We chose to focus on mobility and everyday consumption based on their high resource intensity. The area of housing was deliberately excluded due to its reduced scope for individual influence. In our conception, sufficiency and life satisfaction (the essence of a good life) are closely related, with “enough” being interpreted as “enough for a good life”.
First, a screening questionnaire was used to isolate individuals who (a) fulfilled specific behavioural criteria (e.g. sustainable mobility behaviour, reduced consumption) and (b) identified themselves as satisfied or very satisfied with their lives (see definition of sufficient lifestyle). Second, selected individuals were questioned about their attitudes and values in semi-structured, qualitative interviews. To be considered a “person practising a sufficient lifestyle”, respondents’ self-reported attitudes and values also had to fulfil particular criteria (e.g. striving for inter- and intra-generational justice, responsibility vis-à-vis nature). Of 25 interviewees, 16 were identified as practising sufficient lifestyles. The results of evaluating these 16 interviews provided the basis for answering our research questions.
There are people practising sufficient lifestyles in Switzerland. They primarily get around by bicycle or public transport, they seldom or never fly, and they consciously consume less while emphasizing ecological and social responsibility in what they do consume. At the same time, they are happy with their lives. Most of our interviewees exhibited higher education levels and corresponding incomes. However, this stems primarily from our study design, which did not strive for representativeness. Our sample was gender-balanced and included people of different ages, living alone or in a relationship, in a traditional family structure or as part of a bigger community.
The motivation for their adopted lifestyle stems in particular from a heightened sensitivity to the needs of others (including later generations) and the natural world, as well as a strong sense of responsibility. They are concerned about conserving resources and do not believe that consumption of material resources automatically contributes to life satisfaction.
Interviewees identified the following factors as primary obstacles to sufficient lifestyles: the force of habit, lack of offerings (e.g. organic products) or infrastructure (e.g. public transport gaps), as well as friends and family who reject their lifestyle. Conversely, interviewees with access to such offerings or infrastructure – as in many parts of Switzerland – and surrounded by similar-minded family or friends identified these factors as conducive to their lifestyle. They also named the benefit of living more simply (“living lighter”, “de-cluttering”) as a promoting factor.
Sufficient lifestyles appear to contribute to a good life because they create time and space for living according to particular values. Those who consciously reduce their material needs are also able to spend less time working. They may not be rich in material possessions, but their wealth increases in the areas of self-determination, freedom, social relationships, self-reflection, leisure, and living more consciously.
According to the respondents, these insights might best be shared with others in the form of educational offerings. They also cited establishment of suitable institutional frameworks (e.g. promotion of community initiatives) as an important means of spreading sufficient lifestyles. Further, transforming our current economic system, with its inherent growth-maximization drive, was also deemed necessary.
The project contributes to the increasingly active debate over sufficiency and living well. In particular, the illustrative portraits of individuals practising sufficient lifestyles in Switzerland serve to complement discussions and give the issue a human face. In addition, the project has compiled diverse measures that might be used to help promote the spread of sufficient lifestyles throughout the broader population. In this way, we hope it gives an extra push in the direction of sustainability to the slow-rolling wheel of changing societal awareness.
Enough is enough: How a sufficient lifestyle leads to a good life
What is life like for people who strive to consume as few resources as possible and try to live sufficiently or modestly? What perspectives or values motivate them to live this way? What factors help them and what factors hinder them? Can a sufficient lifestyle lead to more life satisfaction and promote a good life? Learn more in the new book by CDE researchers: “Enough is Enough” (Genug genügt).
M. Leng, K. Schild, H. Hofmann
Genug genügt: Mit Suffizienz zu einem guten Leben
oekom verlag, München
Link to publication
Interactive exhibit "Let's go DanaLand"
Let’s go DanaLand
The game “Let’s go DanaLand”, part of an interactive exhibit, enables visitors to learn more about sufficient lifestyles. It will be hosted by the Umwelt Arena in Spreitenbach from 1 September to 30 November 2016. Beginning in January 2017, the mobile exhibit will travel to different communities and schools.
Further information: www.danaland.unibe.ch