This theme explores the contested and situated nature of ordinary people’s visions of the good life and explores the role of materialism in delivering (and hindering) a sense of prosperity.

Image: CC BY-SA 2.0 :: Camdiluv / Flickr

At the heart of any form of prosperity lie the desires, aspirations, needs and capabilities of ordinary people. Theme S1 sets out to examine the contested and situated nature of our visions of the good life and to explore the role of materialism in delivering (and hindering) a sense of prosperity. It will explore how different philosophical understandings of justice and fairness enter lay narratives of the good life and how aspirations for prosperity and sustainability are negotiated in diverse places and circumstances and at different points in the lifecourse.

S1.1 :: Situated and contested understandings of the good life

Visions of the good life and our pursuit of prosperity are shaped by material circumstances and situated within social and physical environments. Significant tensions between different visions are to be expected, particularly in respect of the priorities attached to social justice, welfare and environmental goods and values. This project focuses on the diversity of visions of what it means to live well within neighbourhoods where social inequalities and distinctions are already apparent and also explores how aspirations may vary along intergenerational and gender lines. We will explore how and in what form concepts of social and environmental justice enter ordinary people’s moral accounts of the good life and how the ‘sustainable prosperity’ of particular places may be understood very differently by different residents. We will map these divergent accounts and identify points of consensus and common ground. Our approach will involve mixed method qualitative research in three case study sites, each selected to include a varied community in different geographical locations.

S1.2 :: More fun; less stuff? Exploring the potential to live better and more sustainably

This project will explore critically the potential for people to have ‘more fun with less stuff’: to live better and more fulfilling lives, with lower material and environmental impact. Psychological research indicates that an excessive focus on acquiring material goods is associated with lower individual wellbeing while psychological well-being is enhanced by activities that involve skill, empathy and concentration in lieu of high material inputs. This viewpoint has some resonance with more sociological definitions of ‘sustainable’ or ‘serious’ leisure which require lower levels of resource and may provide intrinsic personal rewards. In short, the suggestion is that there is a set of activities which are less materially intensive and simultaneously enhance personal wellbeing.

Project S1.2 has two related strands. The first will take an experimental psychology approach to test the relationship between psychic satisfaction and (more or less) materialistic behaviours. This will include an intervention study to explore the potential for mindfulness to reduce pursuit of short-term gratification and increase engagement in more fulfilling (and less damaging) activities. The second strand will adopt an ethnographic approach to explore the possibility for ‘more fun, with less stuff’ for those living on constrained incomes, aiming to build a rich understanding of the meaning of material goods and the everyday experience of leisure in their lives. To date much of the research on the benefits of less materialistic lifestyles has been based on the views and experiences of comparatively wealthy individuals with little attention paid to the opportunity for, or meaning of, less materialistic lives for those in the poorest communities. In addition, critiques of ‘materialist’ orientations often elide the huge personal and social significance which surround the acquisition, use and ownership of specific goods and the extent to which ownership of a suite of goods (computers for example) is considered essential for full participation in society.

S1.3 :: Shifting visions of ‘the good life’ through early motherhood

Individuals’ visions of and commitment to ‘the good life’ are likely to change over time, particularly as they move through significant life-course transitions. The transition to motherhood is an extended process involving a series of shifts both in everyday practice and in women’s visions of the lifestyle they want and are able to have. Project S1.3 explores how visions of the good life develop and change through the early years of motherhood. These visions vary between individuals but are strongly informed by current ideologies of motherhood and experiences of gendered social roles. Existing work indicates that care for infants in early motherhood may stimulate an ethic of care and sense of connection to future generations, but the experience of ‘time squeeze’ associated with the practicalities of child care often militates against engagement in sustainable practices. In addition, commodities play a central role in the construction of ‘appropriate’ mothers and ‘proper’ childhoods, potentially challenging aspirations for less materialistic lifestyles. This project builds on longitudinal qualitative work conducted as part of the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group (SLRG), gaining added value by conducting a new analysis of some of the existing data and continuing the longitudinal work with a subset of mothers who have already been interviewed on three occasions. We will provide a pioneering map of how visions of the good life shift and are tempered by varying experiences and considerations of ‘reality’ from first pregnancy through to when the eldest child is around 8. In-depth interviews will be conducted with a sample of 15 mothers – the first around the time their first child starts school and the second three years later.

S1.4 :: Children and Youth in Cities—Lifestyle Evaluations and Sustainability (CYCLES)

This project aims to establish a robust, international longitudinal study of young people’s lifestyles in cities where rapid urbanisation is occurring. Finding ways to live well in urban communities within the limits of planetary and local ecosystems is one of the most urgent and difficult tasks confronting all communities. Cities are also youthful places, by 2050, 7 out of 10 of young people will live in cities – how they live shapes our global future. This project explores the everyday lives and visions for sustainability of young people across the world in order to understand what is necessary for young people to live sustainable, fulfilling lives in diverse cities.

Our work in this phase will be to establish project governance, conduct the fieldwork for UK and New Zealand case studies and work with international partners to secure funding for the research to be rolled out internationally.

Research will begin with desk based reviews of the sustainability profile of each city before interactive focus groups and participatory visual methods give culturally relevant insights into what youth value and understand about local lives; their hopes and fears; obstacles and opportunities for more sustainable futures. This qualitative work will be used to inform scenarios within a mixed method online global survey which will question young people aged 12-24 about their daily experiences of mobility, food, home-life activities, employment, education experiences; and leisure and communication. For updates and details, please see the CYCLES project page.