With Ray’s statement on “the good life” as background to our interview, we asked two local residents their views on the topic. Jessica Geenen works for Puget Sound Energy as a program manager for the Energy Efficient Communities program. Jenny Kam is a freelance designer whose master’s thesis in industrial design centered on the topic of hedonism. We asked Jessica and Jenny an identical set of questions. The following piece reveals facets of the same topic from two independent points of view.
From your personal perspective, what is “the good life”?
Jessica Geenen: I see the good life as having connections to family, friends, community and the natural world, along with enough financial freedom to enjoy these without stress. To feel like you are contributing to society and have a greater purpose through your everyday work is also a factor.
Jenny Kam: The good life is one that makes you full and keeps you that way. It’s an exercise in judgment when choosing the bits of fun and pleasure with which to fill your life. The good life is crafted from the satisfaction that results from establishing balance in your experiences. It’s about recognizing your need to unwind on the couch in a warm cocoon of blanket-y goodness during the dead of winter and taking the opportunity to do so.
Do we have to make people “eat their oatmeal”— do what is good for both the individual and the whole?
JG: Yes, I do think we have to make people “eat their oatmeal” because of our shared reliance on other people and the environment we cohabitate. Our society has evolved into thinking that we and those in our immediate social or familial circles are most important and deserve the bulk of our attention. However, everything we do has an impact on others, from the factory workers who made our t-shirts in a way that allowed for their cheap prices to the developing world river ecosystems that are poisoned with heavy metals from our disposed electronic gadgets. In the more affluent US, we are blind to the “externalities” associated with our everyday decisions and so are unable to see the effects we have on others. The word “community” comes from the Latin roots cum, meaning “with,” and munus, meaning “responsibility.”
JK: Yes. At the very least, “eating our oatmeal” contrasts how pleasurable everything else can be, but more importantly, our future well-being depends on it. We all know this “oatmeal” is good for us, but resistance persists because the hard part isn’t eating it, it’s learning not to resent having to chow down. Some of this indignation stems from not seeing the larger picture—that “oatmeal” is beneficial for everyone, not just the eater. When this becomes evident, coercion can be removed because there will be understanding that the payoff is bigger than the price.
What role does pleasure play?
JG: I think pleasure plays a key role in how we define the good life as more recent generations have been taught from a young age that it is OK to completely indulge. No longer is carnival food something we only get at the fair once a year—it’s available on street corners and at airports. Shopping has become something we can do at any time, day or night, online on our couch or while on the bus on our smart phones. The good life has been defined as the ability to engage in pleasurable activities whenever we want; immediate gratification has become the modus operandi of our society.
JK: On the surface, it would seem that pleasure is simply the antithesis of “oatmeal,” but in fact, it is the sugar that washes the medicine down and the only reason we continue to put up with anything unpleasant. It is a catalyst for satisfaction as well as a buffer against the mundane. Its presence in every stage of every experience beckons us to unearth, relish and succumb to it. In sustaining the good life, as with most other things, pleasure can be most effectively employed when enjoyed in moderation and in multiple varieties. Even in small and infrequent dosages, pleasure is filled with meaning and value, contributes to a rewarding life and should never be left out of any endeavor. In essence, pleasure is everything.
What role should government, business and other institutions play?
JG: I think they play a critical role in ensuring the good life, as these entities are key societal agents whose actions impact the greater whole. They can work to ensure that their products or services have little negative impact on society and guide their customers to sustainable choices. For example, the UK retailer Marks and Spencer, through their Plan A initiative, has been working to eliminate unsustainable product options from its shelves. Or, conversely, companies can continue to manufacture their products in ways that impose negative externalities of pollution and decreased social conditions on those –usually the poor and marginalized – who do not have the option to avoid them, nor the means nor voice to speak out.
Businesses and governments can make these decisions, but as consumers we also have to “eat our oatmeal” and start paying the true cost of the items we purchase and the services we use. This is part of the shared responsibility we must have in our world community.
JK: Because government and large institutions are so prominent, they have the obligation to create an environment in which we can readily operate responsibly. Regulating without seeming like an overbearing tyrant is a daunting task but crucial to preserving the good life. If they can provide communities with a solid platform for tackling meaningful challenges, people will gravitate toward a common goal and become involved in the process together.
Many designers shape the interaction among people and their environments. What should our (we designers) goals be?
JG: Designers have a huge opportunity to shape the interaction of people and their environments in a sustainable way that does not have to severely impact comfort and convenience. Through research conducted by community-based social marketing practitioners, it has been found that one of the more common barriers that keeps people from acting in more sustainable ways is the added inconvenience. Designers have the ability to help create appliances, tools and processes that decrease feelings of inconvenience and remove that barrier. An example is the screen brightness setting on televisions. Many showrooms want televisions to have the brightest settings to ensure that they are attractive to customers. These settings are not necessary in the home, but the default setting remains throughout the life of the TV, needlessly wasting the energy associated with a brighter screen. Here is an opportunity for the implementation of a very basic, sustainable design solution that would not sacrifice the quality of the product. The simple goal of creating for people, planet and profit is a feasible way to think about the work of design.
JK: We should be leading the way and designing with substance, starting by refining and updating our methods to adapt to our changing environment. Sustainability used to be an unquestioned and inherent part of design, nothing like the recent wave of green veneers smacked onto products (“now made with bamboo!”). We must design for context and consider the value of our work. Just because you can design something new doesn’t mean it’s an improvement, and designers need to be critical of such practices.
Much of the world operates by problem-solving, including design. The instinctive tendency is to find the problem and right the wrong (or remove the obstruction altogether), but that’s only half of the equation. Our attention should also be devoted to studying enduring objects and ideas, not only looking at why something died but why it survived or evolved in the course of history.
Anything specific for the Pacific Northwest?
JG: The Pacific Northwest has a great opportunity to influence design around sustainability. Much of the rest of the country looks to this region for new ideas in sustainability, green living and innovation. However, we in the PNW also need to keep up with what the rest of the world is doing on this front, as Europe and Canada are far ahead of us in terms of living these ideas; the more common action in these places is the sustainable one, and doing otherwise is unthinkable.
JK: We pride ourselves in being at the head of the pack in sustainability. Here, the geography right outside our window is a daily reminder of what’s at stake. Entire communities of passionate people from locavores to urban beekeepers dedicate themselves to greener lives and are spreading the message. It’s a different kind of status symbol now: The smart kids are cool and we know it. The attitudes here reflect that; we are spurring on change throughout the region (and beyond) by confidently talking the talk and walking the walk. But the PNW still has a long way to go.