Clair Brown, Ph.D.

Buddhist Economics

The Pandemic Gives Us Time to Ask What Makes Life Meaningful?

More consumption is not the path to living a worthwhile and healthy life.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

In the midst of this chaotic, stressful time, let us welcome the opportunity to think about how we want our economy and society, along with our own lives, to recover from this pandemic. Seldom do we have the time or incentive to ask, “What makes me happy? How do I really want to live?”

How can we transform our economy to create what we truly value? Economic inequality, with the rich showing off their wealth and superiority, is based on false beliefs about what makes us happy. We end up admiring the rich and feeling inadequate because of misguided social conventions that glorify wealth.

The idea of using consumption to distinguish yourself is silly and destructive. Our continual judgment of ourselves and others, our attachment to possessions and relationships with longing for more, our ignorance of the suffering we are causing other people and nature—all these separate us from each other and cause undue suffering. If we know ourselves and are aware of the people and world around us, we can practice compassion by helping others, and feel our connection to other people and communities, rather than focusing only on ourselves. Living connected with others and nature opens our hearts and brings joy to life.

When our work demands and family needs keep us glued to our To-Do list, our minds keep up an endless chatter about what we need to do. We are lost in our thoughts instead of enjoying the present moment. Even when we are lucky in our lives with decent jobs and wonderful children and friends, we are stressed out and don’t have time to enjoy life. We are tired, we are overwhelmed, and we are frustrated. Although we might have “good lives,” we feel exhausted by life and are fearful about the future.

Our fears reflect our different experiences and drive us apart. Many political leaders and big business leaders use these fears about our jobs, our health, our climate to push their own agenda to keep people tied to the unfettered free market model where people maximize their income and focus on themselves. Executives prosper, workers suffer, and thinking about a meaningful life isn’t even possible.

Once our lives and economy begin to return to normal, how can we demand and help create the economy and society to live a meaningful life? We can demand a progressive economy that structures markets and provides good public services health care, education, and transportation; a social safety net with adequate income support; livable communities, and human rights. Many European countries are ahead of us in creating more equitable, sustainable economies, yet even they can improve the quality of life by focusing less on consumption and more on the climate crisis. Once people’s basic needs are satisfied, we evaluate our consumption in terms of how it enables us to live meaningful lives and fulfill our human potential.

To create an economy that cares for people and the planet, all of us can use our talents and energy to work together to demand specific government policies and actions. At the national level, we need the courage to demand that the government provide the infrastructure needed for an economy that protects the environment with clean air and healthy soil, one that defines economic growth as improved well-being rather than more income. We must work to create a robust safety net that provides health care, food, shelter, public transit, and supportive communities. We also demand justice and human rights for all people; where everyone can live in harmony and thrive together. Despite the grievous circumstances, the mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice have shown the unity and change that compassion and empathy for others can bring along.

Co-authored with Jun Wong, a research scientist at Stern School of Business, New York University.

References

Clair Brown, Buddhist Economics: an enlightened approach to the dismal science, Bloomsbury Press, 2017.