Tag Archives: quality of life

Music to die for

When the pandemic started, my greatest anxiety was that a bad choice on my part could kill someone. My decisions during lockdown and my willingness not only to follow rules, but often to go further than required, has been entirely based on the determination not to harm others. 

At the same time, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about what makes life worth living. A life without time spent in person with people I care about is hard to bear. A life without free access to the countryside is grim. I’m not convinced that a life without live music is worth living. The last thing I did before I went into lockdown (ahead of actual lockdown) was to go to a small, local gig.

There are important questions to ask about what we live for, and what gives joy and meaning to our lives. What value do we find in simply existing? What is it worth risking your life for? Lockdown has given us the chance to find out what really is essential. It’s raised questions about what we’re willing to put ahead of our own health, what we’re willing to risk other people’s lives over, what we can’t do without. For many, this has also been a time of finding out how a person’s economic worth relates to their social usefulness. It turns out it’s the lowest paid workers who are doing the most essential things.

With gigs cancelled, musicians struggled financially. So did all the people whose work depends on venues being open. I watched our government shaft the entire sector. 

At the weekend, I went to a gig. I reckon the venue capacity was about 250 people, and the space was well ventilated, so it wasn’t especially risky. I’m double jabbed, and like a lot of people there, I was wearing a mask. It seemed like a decent risk to take. There were a lot of older people in the audience who were taking a bigger risk than me in being there. As the music started, I wondered whether this was worth dying for. 

Yes. Yes it was. 

A life without the things that make life worth living is not a life worth living. It might be reasonable to endure that over a few months as a temporary safety measure. It’s not possible to live there. Music is essential to me, but there’s a huge difference between listening to a recording and being in a space where people are making music. Much as I love the internet, being online is not the same for me as physically being in the same space with people.

If music helped you in lockdown, please note that most musicians had a really hard time of it. Streaming music doesn’t result in musicians being paid much. If you have any resources to spare, buy a track, or an album, leave something in a tip jar or on Patreon. If we want music, we have to keep our composers and performers economically viable.

What if we ditched GDP?

Gross Domestic Product is used to measure wealth and growth. It focuses us on what we produce in terms of goods and services, while ignoring the impact of those things. It is massively problematic as a thing for governments to focus on because it goes with the idea of perpetual growth. We have economies built on the idea of perpetual growth and yet with finite resources this clearly isn’t going to work. Taking GDP as a measure of success also assumes that anything creating money is inherently a good thing.  This clearly doesn’t work either. What we measure and focus on informs policy and decision making. The speed of movement of money isn’t that useful a thing to obsess over.

What might we measure instead to establish how well a country is doing? Carbon emissions would be an obvious one, as we urgently need to reduce those, the more attention paid to them, the better. We can easily measure health, and this is a much better way to think about how well a country is delivering for its people.  Wellness is a meaningful measure of quality of life, especially when you include mental health in that. Happiness is a difficult thing to measure because it’s so subjective, but when you put people self-reporting on happiness alongside health considerations, you might have a meaningful sense of how people are doing.

Biodiversity would be an excellent thing to measure and monitor and put at the centre of decision making.  In the UK, tree cover would also be a thing to consider. Green spaces – and being able to access them – goes with good mental and physical health.

All of these things would shift us away from imagining that money/production for its own sake is a reasonable measurement of something.  By focusing on GDP, we priorities a notion of wealth creation over the actual wealth that is health and happiness. Money and product is of limited value when it costs your wellbeing. As the gap widens between the very rich and all the rest of us, money as a measurement of a country’s wellbeing becomes ever more suspect. Although it is worth noting that billionaires are the enemy of GDP – GDP is in many ways a measure of money moving around. Money hoarded by billionaires has been removed from the economy and is of no use to anyone else.

Ditching GDP would take us into the difficult territory of re-imagining our economies. We are either going to have to let go of eternal growth as a theory, or societal collapse will force that onto us anyway. We have to let go of the idea of always having more of everything, and replace that with ideas of sustainability, and staying at a level. If we focus on wellbeing rather than on making stuff and the movement of money, we might be able to see ourselves progressing in other ways, and that might make it easier to let go of this rather toxic narrative about what a successful country looks like.

Life after cars

I’ve been cheered over the last month or so to see more people online talking about how we are going to have to cut back on car use. The only way to deal with congestion, is if more people drive less. I’m so glad to see growing recognition that building roads does not solve this problem. We need to tackle our dire air pollution – which is killing people. We need to square up to the way driving impacts on climate chaos. We also can’t simply replace current cars with electric ones, because there are rare earths currently needed for electric cars and the planet can’t afford us over-consuming those, either.

What needs to happen next is that we need to start getting excited about the implications of a mass cutback on car travel. So, here are some benefits to contemplate.

Reduced noise pollution. How much nicer and less stressful human environments are when we aren’t bombarded by car noise!

Less air pollution – which will help with respiratory diseases, and maybe make colds a bit less awful, and improve our life expectancies.

Less time wasted commuting. How much time does a person who sits in traffic squander in a state of frustration as they breathe in the toxins from the other cars around them? Think how much quality of life could be improved by reclaiming that time!

Being bodily and mentally healthier – getting about on foot or on a bike helps reduce stress and keeps us fit. This is a great life improver, and with fewer cars on the road, walking and cycling will become safer and nicer to do.

It’s more social – if you’re on public transport or on foot, you meet people. You might even talk to them in passing and make friends with them. Loneliness is a modern western epidemic and cars don’t help us with that.

If you don’t drive to work and for leisure, you have to be more involved with your local community. People are often less willing to shit where they eat, and being more involved with the people around us builds communities and gives us better lives. If we go over to car sharing or other, more communal systems, this also requires us to be more co-operative, which is good. We’d have to restructure so that accessing key resources was less car dependent. This would be good, and would inject life and opportunities back into small towns and villages.

It saves money. Cars cost money to buy, fuel and maintain. How many people are pushed into sudden debt because of an unexpected car expense?

Being safer. Every year many people are killed and injured through car use. Think of the pain, stress, misery and grief we could end if we got more people out of their cars.

Get people off the roads, and driving will be less stressful and dangerous for those few who really need to do it. It’ll be easier to move emergency vehicles around at need as well.

Imagining an ideal world

Generally I try to avoid complex hypothetical conversations. They tend to suck up a lot of energy whilst achieving nothing. However, unless we take the time to imagine how things could be, we can only follow the trajectory we’re on, or be steered by someone else’s vision. Here are some thoughts about what my ideal world would look like. If the idea interests you, please do post you own vision. I think there’s a lot wrong with how humans are doing things right now, but we’ll only change that if we undertake to think differently.

I believe that no one should be able to make a profit out of resources and services that are essential to life and essential to the functioning of society. I furthermore believe that every one of us who is capable of working, should be working some percentage of each week on making sure these essential things are in place and available to everyone. However we organise it in terms of money, we should be aiming to make sure that everyone has all the essentials covered. No one should be allowed to avoid contributing to essential work on the basis of wealth, and being able to buy your way, and your descendents way out of usefulness should be wholly unacceptable.

If we were all contributing to providing essential things for all people, no doubt there would be some people who felt called to do that full time, which would be fine, and they should be rewarded for that. Everyone else would then have time to study, to create, to produce things that are not essential but that improve quality of life and cause happiness. Anyone should be entitled to do this for profit if they want to. I think this would cause a shift away from wealth for the sake of it and create more interest in quality of life, and as a consequence, a better quality of life for more people. There would be more room for socialising, relaxing, resting and being physically active in playful ways.

If the core principle of a culture is that everyone is sufficient in the essentials, we’d stop creating pressures to buy and own based on ideas of scarcity. We’d become less fearful, and probably as a consequence more willing to share, exchange and gift rather than wanting to put a price tag on everything. We’d be wary of, if not immune to people who want someone else to do all the work for little gain while they rake in the profits – if everyone has enough, there’s a lot less room for exploitation.

I think we’d start to see those who want to do little and have a lot as the parasites they really are, while the myth of the feckless poor would soon disappear. If everyone is contributing to doing what’s necessary, and you have more people power than basic needs, you can just be a bit more ambitious about the baseline. If everyone can make a meaningful contribution to their culture, and if we were really interested in helping everyone contribute in the best way they could, it would soon become very obvious who wanted to participate, and who wanted to freeload. I think (based on assorted surveys about attitudes) that a good seventy five percent of us would easily engage with this way of living. Maybe more. It would be the people who feel a sense of entitlement who would be least willing to roll up their sleeves and participate, I suspect.

My approach would destroy the idea that having money is a kind of social virtue, and would instead focus us on contributing to society in more immediate ways. Doctors, firemen, engineers, scientists, teachers, farmers and the like would be highly valued for doing essential things. Creative folk would be highly valued for increasing quality of life. If most of us took our turn emptying bins, caring for small children, filling in potholes, picking fruit, etc, we’d value those jobs properly too. In fact most of us would be in a position to really value each other. Hedge fund managers and the like might seem a lot less useful as members of society.

New ways, old ways

If I invite you to picture a life where walking is transport, there’s no refrigeration in homes, food is cooked from scratch, washing is done by hand, you’ll probably be well on the way to picturing something Victorian, or earlier. Something tough, full of drudgery and misery. I want to suggest that we can go back to these lighter ways of living without being miserable, because of other technological advances.

We tend, as a culture, to focus on large, expensive pieces of technology. The car. The television, the fridge freezer, the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and so forth. Modern life is defined by these ‘labour saving’ objects. They cost us a lot to run in terms of energy, and the resources it takes to make them, and we do a lot of paid work to earn the money to afford them, so the degree of ‘labour saving’ for the ordinary worker is open to question.

There are other technologies. Modern changes to clothing are vast – manmade fibres that wash and dry easily, that are genuinely waterproof. Walking boots. Walking for transport when you have the modern gear is a world away from some poor sod tramping through the rain in a Thomas Hardy novel. And washing and drying these things by hand, with hot running water, modern cleaning products (even the green ones) and a spin drier is a world away from the copper and the mangle.

Across all areas of human activity there are multiple technological developments at play. We’ve prioritised some, without really looking about what others can give us. Thanks to the rise of the car, we’ve never given cycling a proper go, or properly looked at motorcycles as an alternative. Walking and horse powered transport are much easier when you have surfaced roads – we can have surfaces without cars, and they tend to last longer.

Part of the problem is that our development of technology is driven by the desire to make profits. If we were doing this with the aim of getting the best quality of life in the most sustainable way, the whole history of the 19th and 20th centuries would look radically different. We aren’t labour saving, we’re moving the goalposts. Maybe you don’t have to spend hours at the sink scrubbing clothes. Instead you have to spend hours frustrated in traffic queues, or working a boring job, or a tiring or stressful one, to be spared the drudgery of cooking your own meals.

The good news is there’s a lot to be gained from exploring the lower profile, less expensive technology, and the opportunities it creates to live lightly, need less money, and work less.

Zero Growth Economy

One of the beliefs holding modern economic and political life together is the idea that growth is good. It is through economic growth that we will create benefits and improve quality of life. It sounds plausible. However, it is worth asking what the process of eternal growth means in practice.

To have economic growth, people this year have to buy more than they did last year and next year they will need to buy even more. Where what is bought is largely experiential, this can be feasible. Mostly, growth is not about experience though. It is about the use and consumption of consumable goods. To have economic growth, we have to use ever more resources. We have finite resources in terms of land, minerals, clean water and food supplies. Time is also a finite resource and when you need to earn ever more money to buy ever more things, your time should be factored in as a consideration.

A few weeks ago I listened to MEP Molly Scott Cato explaining how the desire for profit above all else affects chickens in Europe. Chickens and chicken meat travel all over the EU, to wherever someone can make a bit of a profit from them. Never mind that fuel is a finite substance, and that chickens eaten close to where they are reared are much more sustainable, profit comes first. Never mind the road traffic from the lorries moving the chickens about, either. Molly also pointed out that eternal growth depends on obsolescence. If possessions were made to last, they would make less profit for producers. So by building in a cause of death, creating fractionally different ‘new and improved’ versions, or changing the ‘fashion’, that which could have lasted for years is thrown away.

Growth economy is all about waste. It’s about getting you to chuck out last year’s tired, old-fashioned things to by the new shiny things. Again. It’s about not being able to get replacement parts when things wear out. It’s about time wasted making things that will shortly wind up in landfill or driving chickens across Europe. How many jobs exist to create things people really don’t need, in order to make a profit so that the growth of the economy continues? How many valuable and needed things don’t happen, because we are only interested in making a profit?

You get to a zero growth economy by a number of means, and it’s about changing our ideas first and letting work and business choices flow from that change. First, imagine that quality of life is not solely about bank balance. How we spend our hours could be considered important. If we start to value life, the idea of using up someone’s precious time needlessly taxing unfortunate chickens over hundreds of miles starts to look like insanity. We change our attitude to work and stop assuming that productivity is a virtue. That moves us towards ditching jobs that only exist to move round things of no use and value. Instead we’d want to spend less time in the first place on effectively making things that last and have value, so that we can get on with using and enjoying them and living, rather than producing and consuming. Imagine if we were all working modest hours doing what was needed for everyone to be happy.

It may well be a fallacy that growth drives progress and delivers innovation. If we were more interested in improving the quality of our lives than in increasing the bank balances of shareholders, why wouldn’t we spend time innovating? We’d have more time and energy to spend on true progress if less time and energy went into creating rubbish.

Let’s face it, if hard work was really a blessing and a moral virtue, those with power would want as much of it as they could get, and there would be no desire to share that lovely thing with those who couldn’t force a claim on it. It’s money that we hold as a good and a thing not to share with others. If you start treating your time, and your life as more precious than money, everything changes.

Just a hobby

Three small words with which we can crush people. Calling something “just a hobby” is often a way of degrading things which don’t make a lot of money. As though money is the only measure of worth. ‘Hobby jobs’ are simply those someone else considers not lucrative enough. If you make enough money (sum unspecified) you can be taken seriously no matter how pointless and worthless your actual contribution to the world is. Volunteers can be told they have ‘hobby jobs’ – it is a refusal to give respect, often tied to an unwillingness to treat them well. You don’t need help or support, this is just a hobby for you.

I’ve seen brilliant, talented, acclaimed people hit with the ‘just a hobby’ line. It isn’t just about belittling people who are starting out, it can be used to undermine anyone who does something they love and attempts to make a living by it.

The word ‘hobby’ tends to imply the trivial. It’s what you do in your spare time, to relax – to call something a hobby is to suggest it isn’t useful, and that it is instead an indulgence. Cooking, gardening and crafting are all described as ‘hobbies’ by people who do not consider this to be a good use of your time. Forms of exercise –  essential to wellbeing – are also called hobbies, and again their value is degraded by this. Being healthy should not be considered an optional leisure pursuit available only to those with too much time on their hands. Reading is described as a ‘hobby’ not a process of education, self development, inspiration and joy.

And then, if you get depressed you may get some CBT paperwork encouraging you to ‘get a hobby’. Distract yourself from the miseries of your real life with some pleasant trivia!

We need to reclaim crafts, skills, exercise and community activities as being essential to life, not some kind of distraction or bonus extra. We need to resist anything that measures worth in terms of scope to earn money from it, too. There are other ways of making life better for ourselves and each other. Don’t talk about hobbies. Talk about passion and dedication, life skills, community, resilience, creativity, inspiration, health, relaxation. Talk about quality of life.

Also, pause to imagine what would happen if we started to treat collecting money just for the sake of it (rather than to use), with the same wry, indulgent humour that we currently tend to treat the collecting of stamps. Money, we can argue, has a discernible use in the world where a stamp collection does not… but stamps were useful once, and money that has simply been collected with the aim of having a big collection of money, serves no purpose at all. It just sits there, helping no one. Perhaps money collecting is the one thing that truly deserves to be denigrated as a mere hobby.

Hard working families

The government loves hard working families, and puts those three words together every chance it gets. To be a good person in the UK is to be part of a hard working family. Neatly disenfranchising those who can’t find work, aren’t well enough to work, aren’t allowed to work (asylum seekers), who are too old to work, or not working to raise children, or not part of a regular family unit. They don’t say it explicitly but we all know that no single mum is part of the Tory ‘hard working families’ vision.

What we are to understand is that if you work hard, you will be ok. Never mind that the minimum wage isn’t enough to live on, and that one working class wage will not buy a house in many places. Never mind the food banks and the pay day lenders, the young people who have no choice but to stay in the parental home, we are to believe that working hard will save us. Even if it doesn’t. Even though the loss of a job would put most households on their knees in all too short a time frame.

The thing about working hard, really hard and raising a family while you do it, is that there’s not much chance to think. School, after school care, food and laundry, work, commuting, shopping, paying the bills… You run around frantically from when you wake up to when you fall into bed, trying to make ends meet, and to get everything done. There’s not much time to notice how you aren’t winning. If you’re tired, you don’t work smart, or efficiently, you just stumble on as best you can.

There are things that reliably lower and wipe out self-esteem. Having no time for rest and leisure is one of those. Make people work all the time, give them no quality of life and day by day you grind down their sense of self worth. A person with no sense of self worth has a hard time defending themselves, standing up for their interests or even feeling entitled to fight their own corner. I think this may be deliberate.

So we have schemes to keep the unemployed busy and stressed, jumping through hoops so that they don’t have time to think either, and we’re maybe going to extend school hours and get those kids broken in sooner. Work hard enough and you’ll never have the time or energy to ask why you still can’t pay the bills, and why the prices are rising, and why you keep being asked to do more whilst being paid less for it.

That’s why I wrote this blog on Friday. I’ve been working seven day weeks for ages. I’m not doing it any more. I’m taking some time out to think about things, and to decide what would work, and how best to do things – not running flat out all the time, but working smarter, and having days off. Whole days. Regularly. I am not going to be part of a hard working family. I want a decent quality of life, and I’m going to make that happen.

A life full of riches

Wealth does not equate to happiness. Look around at everything at everything you have. Your grandparents, or maybe great grandparents if you’re a lot younger than me, had far less than you. There were no telephones or television in my mother’s childhood. My Gran talked about the arrival of hot running water. Outside toilets, single glazing, no central heating, no fitted carpets, most of them did not have cars, foreign holidays were rare or non-existent. We have so much more material wealth than they did. If it is owning stuff that makes people happy, we should be living in bliss. And yet, we aren’t, and depression and anxiety are widespread.

People with very little can be surprisingly happy. History was not a uniformly miserable place, for all that life expectancies were shorter, diseases often uncurable, and not a one of them had a games consol. On the whole I think our ancestors were better at enjoying what they had and making the most of things, than we are.
My grandmother was born in 1920, and lived through the second world war. She saw poverty, and shortage, rationing, and difficulty. She never had much money and there were many things that were hard for her – poor health especially. But she took joy in music and natural beauties, in the colour of a sky, in friendship. Her life was not devoid of happiness.

We are constantly being sold the idea that what we’ve got isn’t good enough. From our bodies to our diets, our cars, kitchens, decorations, homes, gardens and holidays – we are told to want more, bigger, faster. All the time. We are exposed to a constant stream of messages that tell us to be dissatisfied with what we’ve got. And so we end up working long hours to pay for things we have little time to enjoy. I recall a friend some years ago in a job that wrecked his social life and destroyed his sleep and health, telling me he could not afford to stop. He had to pay for the car, and the sofa and some other things, he was in a ‘wealth trap’ as he called it, and there was no way out. This is the reality we build for ourselves.

When I’ve blogged before about wealth and happiness, I’ve had people tell me that no, really, for them the money and what they can buy is joy. It is the point of life. I’ve been told I am only happy with an open horizon because I make the best of being poor, if I had the money to spend on better things, I’d never look back. One chap who was especially vocal on this, was working 50 hour weeks and more to pay for the things he wanted. He never struck me as being terribly happy, for all that he claimed otherwise.

There is no peace in the constant need to have a new better faster shiny thing. There is no peace in the fear that your stuff is out of date and that people will judge you over it. You do not rest easily at night if the pressure to own and work leaves you no time to wind down. Get that wrong, and the bills, and the debts will leave you anxious if not worse. We pay a high price for our luxuries. We pay in time and life, in happiness, and we pay over and over in terms of the quality of life we live. Yes, a big screen TV may seem like a wondrous luxury, but if all you can do is stagger to the sofa and collapse there in a weary heap between working and sleeping, maybe that’s not such a great deal.

We have more wealth than our ancestors could have dreamed of. What do we do with this? We watch other people pretending to live.
The more I give away, the lighter I feel. Paring my possessions down to that which is needed, useful and life improving, is liberating. I don’t want much. I’m happy with what I have. I feel no lack, and little desire for the things that occupy other people’s time and money. I make ends meet, I get enough of a life, my health is decent. I spend time with my child, and my partner. I have a kind of wealth that would make sense to my ancestors, and I’m not sure how many modern westerners can actually say that.

Sick Systems

Health minister Jeremy Hunt is out there talking about how we have a rather high premature death rate in the UK. That’s the number of people dying under 75. Obesity and smoking are on the agenda as things to sort out. No mention of course of the growing correlation between obesity and poverty, or the influence of food prices, inadequate incomes even amongst those in employment, and the ease of filling up on empty calories that will leave you overweight and suffering from malnutrition. There’s a sick system for you. The way in which food is organised in the western world is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. There’s still not enough food education out there. Without fixing the system, it’s unrealistic to expect individuals to get this right.

There is an elephant in the room (no, that’s not a fat joke). The elephant is stress. High blood pressure, heart attacks, cancer, and pretty much any other ailment you might think of will be aggravated by long term stress. Add in people whose work lives do not give them time to exercise properly, eat properly, rest enough or sleep enough, and you have a sick system. Why are people in Europe not dying off young in the way we are? How about shorter working hours, a better work-life balance and things of that ilk? To even suggest that is to challenge the work longer harder faster for less and less philosophy that underpins our current economic model.

Fear of unemployment, of losing your home, or being stigmatised – these do not contribute to a well and functional populous. That kind of thing may push you towards comfort eating. There’s a known correlation between sleep deprivation and weight gain as well, but we aren’t talking about the sleep deprived when it comes to obesity. As a culture we do not value sleep nearly enough. Light pollution and noise pollution contribute to our sleeplessness. Shift work plays havoc with circadian rhythms. For someone caught up in the pressure to work longer hours, the fear of losing their job, the difficulty of paying the bills, sleep can be hard to find, and this in turn will make said person ill.

Unfair systems are about as stressful as it gets. Governments that break the law and then change the law retrospectively to make what they did ok… do we feel relaxed and comfortable about that? As legal aid dries up, it will be increasingly easy for those with wealth to use the threat of the law to bully into submission, victims who cannot afford to fight them. If that isn’t making you feel a little bit sick, you’ve not been paying attention. Systems that we know are likely to encourage the innocent to plead guilty and the guilty to plead innocent.

There is a relationship between happiness and health. There is a relationship between stress and poor mental health. Stressed, frightened, overstretched people are going to be more vulnerable to disease than relaxed and happy people. And really, if life is miserable and the one comfort is your tobacco, or getting smashed out of your face on cheap alcohol, or eating too many cakes… are you really going to deny yourself the one little pleasure remaining to you? Sure, it may be going to kill you, one day, but there are days when for a person living on the edge, that would just be a relief and an end to all the struggling. And yes, under the new systems we have, more people are apparently reporting suicidal feelings to their doctors.

You will not get a majority of well people in a sick system. If you have a system that pays no regard to well-being and treats humans like disposable commodities, you are not going to have well people. Sorry Mr Hunt, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t grind people into the floor and except them to stay well and not cost your health system anything. It comes down to what you value, doesn’t it, and how good your maths is. My government sows policies that are bound to make people ill. Sooner or later, the medical bill for that is going to come in. If you don’t pay it as a medical bill, you’ll pay it as a crisis in mental health, or in lost work days.

If we valued quality of life more than GDP, we would not be here.