4 keys to the ‘good life’ go beyond money

Understanding how wellbeing is defined across cultures can give us a better idea of how to make the best of our own lives and livelihoods, and how to make more effective public policy decisions, according to anthropologist Ted Fischer. (Credit: generation-grundeinkommen/Flickr)

As one year ends, we ask ourselves what changes we want to make for the next. Ted Fischer, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University and wellbeing advisor to the World Health Organization, has some ideas about where to begin.

“It’s not just money, and I think we’re realizing that more and more,” Fischer says. “But that’s a big realization because for a long time we’ve thought that money is the answer.”


Fischer is the author of The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity and the Anthropology of Wellbeing, (Stanford University Press, 2014).

For The Good Life, Fischer studied German supermarket shoppers and Guatemalan coffee farmers to discover what hopes and dreams they share, and how anthropology can tell us about what the “good life” means for all of us.

Fischer describes the good life not as a goal in and of itself, but a journey. The good life entails having realistic aspirations to direct that journey, sufficient opportunity to realize those aspirations, a sense of dignity, and being able to pursue a life with purpose.

Fischer found that these principles hold true for both middle-class Germans and poor Guatemalan Mayans. Understanding how wellbeing is defined across cultures can give us a better idea of how to make the best of our own lives and livelihoods, and how to make more effective public policy decisions.

4 principles to the ‘good life’

1. We want more

“I’ve been working with Mayan farmers in Guatemala for many years, and I’ve long been struck by how similar what they would like out of life is to what we want out of life,” Fischer says.

We tend to assume the poor are exclusively driven by need, while wealthier people are driven by desire, he says, but the reality is that once a person’s basic needs are addressed, everyone tends to want the same sort of things.

The scale and details may differ—the Mayan farmer may aspire to send their child to the private Catholic school and buy a new truck, while a comparatively wealthy German supermarket shopper may yearn to make more expensive improvements—but at root they are strikingly similar.

They want to improve their lots, and they want their children to have better lives than they had.

2. Give us a chance

While we may all aspire to something better, aspirations don’t mean much without adequate opportunity to realize them, Fischer says.

The Mayan farmers are a good example of this. Guatemala has been a major coffee producer since the 19th century, but until very recently, most of it was grown on large, low-altitude plantations that mass-produced coffee for major coffee companies. The Maya, who lived and farmed food crops at higher altitudes, would come down from the mountains to work as laborers on the plantations in order to make ends meet. It was a job of last resort—the work was backbreaking, they were poorly treated, and the pay was low.

Recently, however, a market has emerged for coffee grown at very high altitudes, allowing the Maya to grow coffee on their own land instead of down on the plantations. This shift in the market gave the Maya the opportunity to transform from laborers to entrepreneurs—a transformation that has had tangible economic and social benefits for Maya communities.

Aspirations without opportunity lead to frustrations, even societal upheaval, as was seen with the Arab Spring, Fischer says.

3. Living with dignity

The desire to live with dignity is universal. In Guatemala, the high-end coffee market allows the Maya to support their families by owning their own labor and working on their own land. Additionally, they take pride in being able to produce a luxury product that is in high demand.

In Germany, workers’ dignity is very important. Many trades have guilds regulating and credentialing tradecrafts, formalizing the expertise necessary to become a master baker or bike mechanic.

Additionally, there is a strong distinction between work and personal time in Germany—as inconvenient as it is for shoppers, stores close at 6 on weeknights and 2 on Saturdays in order to preserve work-life balance for sales staff.

4. A larger purpose

Being able to live according to a greater purpose is the final component of the good life. While aspirations tend to be smaller, individual goals, purpose encompasses the big-picture ideals to which we dedicate our lives.

“It could be big things like religion; it could be small things like our trade or craft–but we want to be committed to something bigger than ourselves,” Fischer says.

In Germany there is a strong belief that markets should be moral—that products should be conscientiously produced and that workers’ rights be protected. So when most Germans state a preference for fair-trade, organic, humanely raised eggs, they are advancing the cause of creating moral markets.

The big picture

An economist will point out that a lot of Germans don’t actually end up buying the conscientiously produced eggs they say they prefer, but rather opt for the cheaper alternatives. But Fischer says that understanding that the preference exists in the first place is as important to good public policy as understanding what people ultimately end up doing. Anthropologists are the ones who ask those questions.

Using anthropology to inform public policy is a valuable way for policymakers to finally confront the thornier issues of wellbeing. “The question we have to ask,” Fischer says, “is ‘What kind of society do we want to live in?'”

Source: Vanderbilt University