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  • Author or Editor: Orsolya Lelkes x
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A Thriving Life That Does Not Cost the Earth
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How can we create a thriving life for us all that doesn’t come at the price of ecological destruction?

This book calls to explore our collective and personal convictions about success and good life. It challenges the mainstream worldview, rooted in economics, that equates happiness with pleasure, and encourages greed, materialism, egoism and disconnection.

Drawing on science and ancient Greek philosophers the author details how we can cultivate our skills for enjoying life without harming ourselves or others, and can live an autonomous, creative and connected life. Complementary to our intellectual understanding, the experiential method of role play and theatre can powerfully facilitate the exploration of the inner drivers and hindrances of a thriving life.

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This paper explores the impact of internet use in old age on social isolation and on subjective wellbeing. Does internet use make older people less or more lonely? Does it crowd out face-toface contacts or enhance them? We found that social isolation is lower among internet users aged 65 or over. Using a European multi-country cross-sectional dataset with over 11,000 observations, we found that those who use the internet regularly have a lower chance of being isolated, more so for those who use the internet every day, controlling for personal characteristics such as income, marital status, gender and health condition. Thus, personal social meetings and virtual contacts are complementary, rather than substituting for each other. Internet use may be a useful way of reducing social isolation. We also found a positive relationship between regular internet use and self-reported life satisfaction, all else being equal.

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Who was never born, never lived, yet overran the world? The answer is homo economicus, economic man: a selfish contender and something like a supercomputer; fully informed and perfectly rational. His main aim is to ‘maximise his utility’ ‒ to be as happy as can be. Such traits allow him to act effectively for his own good while also producing an optimum on a social scale. He is the protagonist of mainstream economic models and the main figure in the university teaching of economics; in fact, he is a gender-neutral human who is called a ‘man’ only due to historic convention. Beyond the university walls, economic man has now become a belief system that promises to offer a pathway to prosperity, both individually and socially.

It seems a mystery why economic man has become so popular, because we know very well that this is not what human beings are like.

Many have challenged the suppositions behind economic man.1 These days, criticizing the assumption of rational decision making is by no means an exotic notion or indeed one beyond the range of the economics profession. Both Daniel Kahneman in 2002 and Amor Tversky in 2017 received the Nobel Prize in Economics for doing just that.

People do not necessarily do what is good for them. According to János Harsányi, a Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian-American economist, a person’s behaviour does not necessarily reflect their deeper interests and true preferences, which may be due to ignorance or to incorrect information.

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John Maynard Keynes, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century, who, as one of the greatest critics of the free market fundamentally reworked macroeconomics and economic policy, had a dream. In 1930 he dreamed of a future for the generation of grandchildren with 15 hours of work that would provide enough for everyone. He had dreamed of this just at the beginning of the world economic crisis, which he considered to be only a temporary disturbance. He was optimistic, believed in economic development and believed that this would make life better. He predicted that the age of abundance would come, and that since the beginning of creation this would be the first moment in history when man would encounter his only real problem: how to use his freedom, how he can live wisely and well.

According to Keynes, skilful money makers can bring an age of abundance to humanity, but in this new era they will no longer be important. Rather, the important will be those who enjoy life itself and are able to make fruitful use of it. They do not confuse the ultimate goal with the means that leads there, economic prosperity.

And when the accumulation of wealth will no longer have social significance, there will be a fundamental change in morals as well. Many distortions that result from loving money for itself, not as a means to live well, will disappear. Keynes puts it radically.

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Happiness is both cultural and personal. Our culture penetrates our concepts, our language and ultimately even our experiences. Our upbringing, our education, the values of our religion or our community, our current economic system, our beliefs about human nature and the pathways to progress and prosperity, the advertising industry and the media tell us stories about ‘how to make it’, how to enjoy life and how not to. ‘Work hard’; ‘bring home the bacon’; ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’; ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’; ‘eat, drink and be merry’; ‘lunch is for losers’; ‘keep smiling’; ‘finish everything on your plate’; ‘you should not finish everything on your plate’; ‘you can buy happiness’; ‘you cannot buy happiness, but you can buy a hair appointment and that’s kind of the same thing’.

We learn how we are supposed to relate to joy and happiness: some forms are more acceptable and we are rewarded for them. For other forms, we pay with a sense of guilt or shame, or just numb ourselves to them. Some others are simply beyond the scope of our attention, as if we were blind to them.

Happiness is also personal, not simply in the sense that it is we who feel it, but in the sense of each of us has a subjective attitude to happiness, that we develop through our experiences and our aspirations. We make decisions about what kind of joy and happiness (or whatever we call the ‘good feeling’ we strive for) we pursue, and how.

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One may see a conflict between living well and living fair. Two strong opposing forces affect us: the human quest for pleasure and good life and the external call to reduce our resource use, with the adjustment of personal life-styles. The former relates to our pleasure-seeking self, the latter calls upon our moral, value-seeking self.

How could values that might seem distant, such as ecological balance, solidarity and the common good, override what is immediate, personal and enjoyable? Why would people curb their consumption and adjust their habits if it feels like a loss to them? Why would anybody choose voluntary simplicity amid the constant lures of abundance? Why would anyone opt for minimalism in the world of maximizers? Ecologically responsible behaviour is often perceived as a loss of happiness and life quality, evoking resistance or even anger.

If this is so, only a tiny minority will seek an austerely simple life and not mind abstaining from life’s normal pleasures. We may call them ecological hermits.

The idea of loss is unlikely to motivate to adjustment. A more viable path is to refine and fine-tune our relationship to joy. We need to find a life strategy that both is joyful and does no harm to others and does not endanger our future on this planet. I call this sustainable hedonism.

Our consumption has gradually outgrown the limited resources of our planet. World Overshoot Day fell on 29 July in 2019, a calculated illustrative calendar date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year.

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Happiness is the ultimate good, there is nothing more precious or desirable than this, according to Aristotle. Fame, wealth, enjoyment, knowledge, although one can strive for them, are all just means to make someone happy. In contrast, one seeks happiness not in order to get to something else through it, but because it is good in itself. However, the word for happiness used by Aristotle, ‘eudaimonia’ covers something else than many other concepts of happiness.

In eudaimoniaeu’ means good and ‘daimōn’ is a supernatural being, a spirit. In the ancient world, daimon was the name of the ‘movers’ in the celestial spheres who moved the planets. There was a perfect order in the celestial spheres, and the world was orderly. This was called the ‘cosmos’. The philosopher held that humans’ purpose was to achieve this perfection of the spheres within themselves. Thus, we may say that eudaimonia means that we become a good spirit, living in harmony with other beings of the cosmos. Eudaimonia is the central concept of Aristotle’s ethics.

Today, the term eudaimonia is translated in various different ways: as happiness, flourishing, living well or well-being. The ancient concept of flourishing life has gained much recent attention, and it may offer a key to our collective pathway to a thriving life which does not cost the Earth.

According to Aristotle, happiness is ‘good life and good action’, and a ‘happy man lives well and does well’.1 In our contemporary language we could say that the good life is what we aim for, and it is largely the outcome of right action.

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Ancient and medieval cultures proclaimed general, universal values for those who belonged to them. In Judaism, God ‘revealed’ the Ten Commandments and the laws to Moses. He and other prophets proclaimed God’s will to the chosen people. In Christianity, God ‘reveals’ himself, but in a broader way: it is not only through Jesus Christ, the prophets and the scriptures, but there are other, natural ways for understanding God such as the conscience of man or the contemplation of the beauty of nature. Muhammad, the later prophet, received direct revelations from the archangel Jibril in the cave on Mount Hira. The Buddha ‘awoke’ to the truth when, after a long inner journey and meditation, his mind became clear and quiet. The teaching,’ dharma’, means the cosmic order and is constant by its nature. A common feature in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism is that, according to their teaching, truth exists in absolute terms, independently of mankind, and is revealed to people through gradual recognition.

Nowadays, there is an increasing emphasis on subjective, internally lived values. ‘Good’ corresponds to what feels good.

It was only with 18th century liberalism that the idea became common that man himself knew what was good for him and that everyone also had the right to actualize it through liberty (within certain limits, foremost being that it does not restrict the rights of others). This is also the basis of universal suffrage. This classical liberalism, encompassing human rights and representative democracy (among other core values), is already a cornerstone of the Western social and political order, even if there are significant differences across countries in terms of the choice of values on which state involvement is based.

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Anthropologist Jane Briggs travelled to the Arctic in the 1960s and asked the Inuit, who at that time still lived in igloos and kept their traditions, to receive her and help her survive. She lived among them for a year and a half, and learnt their language. She observed in detail how drama is used to educate and teach children.1 When a child gets a tantrum, bites a parent, they are not scolded or punished but, rather, are shown in a playful way that involves the child what their action does to others (for example, the bite hurts the child’s mother). They are not taught in words, especially not in angry words, but by playing out the situation, sometimes by dramatically magnifying it, how they can handle their own tempers and other people. The child and their parents tell and play stories together about life, relationships and conflict resolution. Briggs was impressed by the serenity and peace of the Inuit and saw herself, in comparison, as a fierce, excessive being, and learnt a lot from them.

Role playing is almost instinctive, and, just as children do it on their own without any encouragement, it was part of our human civilization even before the invention of writing: we told and played stories to each other.

Role playing was made into an art by Greek drama. In the tragedy, viewers were able to encounter the topics that occupied them as well, to experience the communal, collective nature of their own history, and thus to experience ‘catharsis’ – a state of stir, exaltation, relief and spiritual purification. The Greek word catharsis means purification.

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Jacob Levy Moreno developed his own role theory from 1923 on. In contrast to sociological role theory, which is a theoretical concept and primarily seeks to describe certain phenomena, for example gender roles, Moreno focused on practical application. He worked with refugees, prostitutes, schoolchildren, companies, church groups and politicians. He worked with psychiatric clients as well as ordinary people. In addition to social roles, he also explored ‘psychodramatic roles’ (for example hero, explorer, movie star), where imagination is also gaining ground.

He did not stop here, as he looked at an individual through their relations. Therefore, he was intrigued by how one person’s behaviour affects someone else or an entire group and, conversely, how they affect the person, that is, what interactions there are between different members (and their roles). He observed how the structure of a group can change and how its cohesion can be increased.1 I learnt most about its practical application from my mentor, Max Clayton, and through my personal experiences.

Moreno’s role theory bridges the individual and the community, psychology and sociology, as it examines intrapersonal (intrapsychic) phenomena as well as interpersonal (interpsychic) interactions. Moreno believed that dramatic tools can not only help individuals as such, but are also able reshape the overall culture. He envisioned a new culture: a world more creative, spontaneous, healing and connected.

Moreno, just like his Australian disciple Max Clayton, believed in the liberating and healing power of self-expression. Role playing, drama techniques, as well as dance, song, music, drawing and myriad of other forms of creativity are opportunities for one to create something new.

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