Yearning for Balance
reprinted from YES! A Journal of Positive Futures, Spring/Summer 1996
As study asked, "what do you value and what do you think others
value?" The results may be a pleasant surprise.
n 1995, the Merck Family Fund commissioned The Harwood
Group, a public issues research and innovations firm, to study citizen perspectives
on the issue of consumption. The study began with four focus groups, conducted
in Dallas, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Frederick, Maryland with Americans
from all walks of life. Harwood then conducted a national public opinion
survey framed by the concerns raised in the focus groups.
This survey, taken in February 1995, provides a statistical
portrait of how Americans are thinking about a wide range of issues connected
to consumption, the environment, and the values and priorities of our society.
What follows is adapted from the report issued by The Harwood Group, entitled
Yearning for Balance.
Watch television for a day and you will get a clear
picture of what Americans supposedly want in life: new cars, a big house,
stylish clothes, the latest gadgets ­p; and of course, fresh breath.
Yet when Americans are asked to describe what they are looking for in life,
their aspirations rarely center on material goods.
When people were asked to rate what would make them
more satisfied with their lives, the responses were striking: non-material
aspirations consistently outranked material ones by huge margins. Only small
fractions said they would be significantly more satisfied with life if they
had a nicer car, bigger house, or nicer things in their home.
But a majority of Americans would be much more satisfied
if they were able to spend more time with family and friends (66 percent
rating 8 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10) and if there was less stress in
their lives (56 percent rating 8 or higher). Also, nearly half (47 percent)
would be much more satisfied if they felt they were doing more to make a
difference in their community.
Despite the cost in time and stress, many people say
they feel stuck on a treadmill - striving for material goals that seem ever-harder
"You have to work harder in order to stay the same
as what you were before or get ahead," complained a Frederick man.
But others question whether we need to be pushing so
hard, or if we are choosing to do so. Much of that feeling of wanting more
seems to come from comparing ourselves to others. Another Frederick man
said, "Don't let the Joneses get you down. ... You know, if the Joneses
get a new car, I've got to go out and buy one." He added wryly, "The
Joneses are killing me."
Perhaps surprisingly, then, fully 70 percent of survey
respondents said they are satisfied with their personal economic situation.
Most focus group participants agree that money and possessions are not the
main things lacking in their lives.
"We have an abundance of most everything,"
said an Indianapolis man. What was heard instead is that people seem to
yearn for things money cannot buy: more time, less stress, a sense of balance.
Said another Indianapolis man, "You find out that the materialistic
things aren't as important as your families."
A society at odds with our values
When they look at the condition of American life today,
people from all walks of life - rich and poor, men and women, all ages,
all races - reach a remarkably similar conclusion: things are seriously
out of whack. People describe a society at odds with itself and its own
most important values. They see their fellow Americans growing increasingly
atomized, selfish, and irresponsible; they worry that our society is losing
its moral center.
When people are asked to compare the values they apply
as guiding principles in their own lives with the values that drive the
rest of society, the gaps are striking (see graph). Huge majorities of Americans
cite responsibility, family life and friendship as key guiding principles
for themselves, with more than 85 percent of survey respondents rating those
values at 8 or higher on a 10-point scale.
Yet respondents believe that their fellow Americans
do not share these priorities: fewer than half believe that responsibility,
family life, or friendship rate 8 or higher for "most people in our
society." Conversely, people feel that most Americans are more strongly
guided by prosperity and wealth than they are themselves.
These gaps reveal a dissonance in American life - a
divergence between how people view their own priorities and those of the
rest of society. Interestingly, those surveyed do not feel the same kind
of dissonance regarding other values, such as financial security and career
success. Survey respondents seem to be saying that financial security is
something all Americans need, but that our society's focus on wealth for
its own sake is out of sync with their values.
In our society's rush to embrace such values as freedom,
financial security, and pleasure, people seem to be saying another set of
vitally important values - including responsibility, family life, and friendship
- is being squeezed out.
Too much focus on material things
Focus group participants viewed this tension between
their own priorities and those of our society as underlying many of the
other concerns - from crime to family breakdown to the lack of community.
When pressed on their views, people insist they are talking about a single
core problem: materialism. Fully 95 percent of survey respondents characterized
"most" of their fellow Americans as materialistic.
As a Frederick man described it, "We spend so much
time rat-racing around, working our fool heads off, trying to get all those
material things." A Los Angeles man saw it as "the lust for wealth
and power that .. we're taught to worship."
An Indianapolis woman linked the desire to have material
things to crime: "[Crime] goes with the competitiveness also. They
know they can sell the drugs for the money and get what they want."
Others connect materialism, greed, and selfishness to such problems as family
breakdown and the loss of community. A Frederick man explained: "Things
have become so important to us that things, and the acquisition of things,
run our lives and our relations with others."
People's criticism of our materialistic society extends
to behavior as well as attitudes. In the survey, 82 percent agreed that
most of us buy and consume far more than we need. People seem particularly
concerned about what they see as a tendency to want everything now rather
than waiting or saving for it; 91 percent agreed that the "buy now,
pay later" attitude causes many of us to consume more than we need.
People seem particularly distressed at the degree of
materialism they see in America's children and youth. Indeed, 86 percent
of those surveyed agreed that "today's youth are too focused on buying
and consuming things."
Despite these concerns, Americans are ambivalent in
their views on materialism. This ambivalence should not be confused with
indifference; people feel strongly, but they are torn between opposing points
of view. While most people in the survey believe we buy and consume too
much, just over half of those surveyed also agreed that "material wealth
is part of what makes this country great." An Indianapolis man asked,
"Why should a person live in a shack when he can afford a house?"
For good or ill - and people clearly believe it is both
- materialistic attitudes and behavior are seen as pervasive in our society.
In the survey, 89 percent agreed that buying and consuming is "the
The tension between this pervasive emphasis on consumption
and the values people actually profess to care about has become the elephant
in the living room of American life - the phenomenon which we all seem to
know is there, yet is so big we are afraid to talk about it.
Yet, when Americans are asked what is driving so many
of our society's troubles, they say that our values are out of whack. A
Frederick man put it this way: "I think we're at the point where we
value things more than we value people. And the relationships, the relations
that people used to have among each other's broken down."
Ready to talk about changing
People's readiness at least to consider real changes
in their lifestyles is evident in the survey. The graph on this page shows
people's responses to a list of possible actions Americans could take to
reduce the amount we consume and the level of materialism in our society.
But when it comes to actually making that change happen,
a number of obstacles arise.
One barrier standing before people is a difficulty imagining how such a
change could happen - beyond their own individual choices and households.
Individual change is easy to envisage. But the problem of materialism is
as much a collective as an individual one. And yet people cannot seem to
describe how a more collective kind of change could take place.
In a fragmented, atomized society, people are unsure
where and how to begin; they seem fearful that if they act, others will
not join them. A Frederick man described the sense of paralysis: "As
an individual you don't really know what can be done about it, and how it
can be fixed."
There is a real tension embedded here - rooted in a
sense of ambivalence about how much we want and how much we need. As a Frederick
woman said, "I don't need it all and I know I don't need it, but it's
so hard to let go of it."
Implications for moving ahead
The challenge now is to find ways for people to create a public conversation
around the issues of consumption, materialism, and the environment that
can lead to real change. Here are five principles:
For more information, contact the Merck Family Fund, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 500, Takoma Park, MD 20912. Phone: (301) 270-2970, email: merckigc.apc.org.
- People want to talk about values. Americans said in the survey and
focus groups that they share a deep and abiding concern about the core values
driving our society. Citizens are not ready to be lectured on consumption,
but they are ready to be engaged.
- Children and future generations are a crucial entry point. Every time
children or future generations were mentioned in the focus groups, interest
and engagement in the conversation perked up. Children's values and future
are at stake, and people are trying, unsuccessfully, to envision a better
world for their kids.
- Tap the yearning for balance. The frenzied, excessive quality of American
life today has left people yearning for balance. They feel that an essential
side of life centered on family, friends, and community has been pushed
aside by the dominant ethic of "more, more, more."
- People need to work through their ambivalence. While condemning greed
and excess, people understandably prefer wealth to poverty and wish to live
in some degree of material comfort. Also, there is a strong belief in freedom
of choice and an aversion to telling or being told how to live. Any public
effort must offer people room to explore what they think and are willing
to do. Only then will people be able to tap their desire for balance.
- People are looking for a sense of possibility. People associate public
discourse today with acrimony and gridlock; most do not want any part of
that. But when they hear each other describe common concerns about misplaced
values, children, and the environment, and have a chance to explain their
longing for a more balanced life, a spark appears. Blowing that spark into
a significant flame will require demonstrating a sense of movement - celebrating
small successes, telling stories about where and how the ground is shifting,
and helping people to discover a role for themselves in making it happen.
The Art of Downsizing
t appears that millions of Americans have "downshifted"
- that is, they have chosen to scale back their salaries and lifestyles
to reflect a different set of priorities. Twenty eight percent of the survey
respondents said that in the last five years, they had voluntarily made
changes in their life which resulted in making less money - not including
those who had taken a regularly scheduled retirement. The most common changes
were reducing work hours, changing to a lower-paying job and quitting work
to stay at home.
Downshifters offer a wide range of reasons for making
these changes in their lives. In the survey, the most frequently cited reasons
are: wanting a more balanced life (68 percent); wanting more time (66 percent);
and wanting a less stressful life (63 percent). About half of the downshifters
did so to spend more time caring for their children. Down-shifters are somewhat
younger and more likely to have children than the population as a whole;
60 percent of them are women.
Downshifters spoke up in the focus groups as well, such
as the Indianapolis man who recounted: "I'm whole sold for simplifying
your life because that's what I just [did] ... I left a job making three
times the money that I'm making now; but by the same token, I've got more
time with my family. I just had a little boy. 1 want to watch him grow up.
I've got more time with my family, less stress.
A Los Angeles woman also described her decision to change
her priorities: "As I started climbing the corporate ladder, I really
decided that I was hating it more and more. ... I changed careers and got
paid less. I sold the car and I bought a '65 Ford Falcon. ... And I'm much
happier. I work two blocks from home, and I'm doing something that I really
Although many say they miss the extra income they once
had, most downshifters describe themselves as being happy with the changes
they made. "It's been a sacrifice ... our pay was cut in half,"
said a Dallas woman, "but I think it's the best choice that can happen,
because you're with your children, and they're in a loving environment.
In the survey, 87 percent of downshifters describe themselves
as happy with the change, with 35 percent saying they do not miss the extra
income. Downshifters are more likely than others to say they are happier
than their parents at the same age, and that they are more involved in their
community - but they also tend to be less satisfied with their economic