Social and psychological understandings of the good life

b y  K A T E   B U R N I N G H A M
What does the ‘good life’ actually mean to people, and how are their visions and aspirations informed by aspects of their social, economic and environmental situation? In this blog, co-investigator Kate Burningham explains how CUSP is approaching research into the social and psychological understandings of the good life.

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What does the ‘good life’ mean? How do people make sense of ‘sustainable prosperity’? These questions underpin our research in this theme within CUSP. We are interested in exploring diverse visions of the good life and understanding how these visions are informed by aspects of peoples’ social, economic and environmental situation, as well as trying to draw out areas of agreement and commonality. In order to capture some of this diversity our projects focus on people at different stages in their lives and living in varying circumstances and localities.

One focus in our work will be on how the ‘sustainable prosperity’ of particular places is understood and informed by locally relevant dimensions of inequality and difference. We will also explore whether and how ordinary people’s ideas about what it means to live well within their own locality draw on philosophical understandings of the good life and of social and environmental justice.

The idea that less materialistic lifestyles are positive not only in terms of environmental impact but also for personal wellbeing is a seductive one. We are interested in developing a better understanding of the relationship between psychological wellbeing and materialistic values and examining the role that material goods play in delivering (and hindering) people’s sense of prosperity. We also plan to examine for whom the idea of ‘more fun with less stuff’ is appealing and possible – in particular what might it mean for those living in financially constrained circumstances?

Often left out of discussions about the ‘good life’ is consideration of where people are placed within the life course. Understanding young peoples’ aspirations for the future is particularly important. One of our projects focuses on young people growing up in diverse international cities and explores what ‘living sustainably’ might mean to them. Similarly, how is the ‘good life’ understood by women negotiating the demands of life with a young family? Is the desire to sustain family life in line with, or at odds with, more environmental understandings of sustainability? Over the next five years we will be speaking to a wide range of people and organisations across a number of locations to seek answers to these questions.

Kate Burningham is Deputy Director of CUSP, and Reader in Sociology of the Environment at the University of Surrey. She is overseeing the CUSP theme on social and psychological understandings of the good life.

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