‘Economy, Happiness, and the Good Life:’ An Interview with Edward F. Fischer

In the second interview for the series ‘The Good Life: Conversations for the King’s Review,’ Jonas Tinius and Johannes Lenhard invited anthropologist and social entrepreneur Edward F. Fischer to reflect on the core themes of his latest book The Good Life: Aspirations, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Well-Being (Stanford, 2014).  We spoke about the imperfect but valued opportunities of entrepreneurship for realising desires for a better life;  hopes for a better future, and the role of economies and markets in thinking about well-being.


KR: What do you understand by the notion ‘the good life’?

Edward F Fischer: I see you are starting off with the trick questions. A large part of the attraction of the phrase is precisely its semantic slipperiness and strategic ambiguity. We may all agree that we would like to live ‘the good life,’ and yet differ radically —sometimes violently — in the specifics. It turns out that the grammatically singular ‘good life’ is realized as a multitude of varied good lives.

I do think it is useful and valid to speak of the good life in the abstract, as a concept common to the human condition, removed from particular parochial moral valuations. In anthropology, we are very sensitive to difference and heterogeneity, so much so that we sometimes lose sight of a common humanity, the human experience. Looking at what constitutes a good life across time and space reminds us of our existential similarity that can justify (at least sometimes) using the first person plural in anthropological writings.

But, back to your question: what is the good life? To paraphrase Aristotle, it is a life worth living, a fulfilled life. Importantly, this goes beyond ‘happiness’, at least that giddy joy many of us Americans associate with the term. A fulfilled life may well involve pain and deprivation; certain kinds of suffering and sacrifice define us, are central to our identity and life projects. Most would say that Mother Theresa probably led a very fulfilled life, and yet it was not necessarily one of happiness. I am reading Moral Laboratories[i] right now by Cheryl Mattingly in which she shows how parents of chronically disabled children in Los Angeles build and negotiate their identities in the morally fraught world of burdensome long-term care. Theirs is a radical commitment to another individual, but subjective fulfilment may well be found in abnegating the self to a collective.

A good life certainly can be happy, but it also involves sacrifice: Amartya Sen[ii] reminds economists of the importance of what he calls ‘commitment’, people’s willingness to make counter-preferential choices because of a commitment to an idea or ideal. And such commitment is deeply meaningful for identity, subjective well-being, and one’s ability to lead a good life.

A key part of this sacrifice and struggle is the hard work of becoming a certain sort of person – living up to, and not, certain ideals. Thus, the good life is not a state to be achieved, such as enlightenment, but rather the often arduous journey itself.


KR: So, the good life is more than a mere striving for happiness. You link it to Aristotle’s notion of ‘eudaemonia‘. Can you spell out what this reference means for you?  Do you see the striving for a happy and good life as a kind of modern virtue?

EFF: Reading Aristotle is always humbling. He grappled with so many of the fundamental questions that we continue to engage today that it sometimes seems hard to go too far beyond what he already wrote.

His term, eudaemonia denotes a couple of key aspects. First is the distinction between hedonic happiness and fulfilment; eudaemonia refers to the broader sweep of the latter, flourishing and not just surviving.

Second, the idea of eudaemonia situates virtue and fulfilment in social context. That is to say, what is seen as good and just and virtuous is defined by particular moral communities. True, Aristotle did not problematize an assumed sort of mind meld between individuals and Gemeinschaft. But he left the door open, and philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre give us productive readings of culturally sensitive Aristotelian virtues. We are all engaged in moral projects that give meaning to our lives; the particulars vary widely, but, at its broadest and most ecumenical, the general quest is human.

Virtue, then, as an ideal and as an aspirational practice, is key to eudaemonia. And while virtues may be idiosyncratically understood and felt, their power also derives from a shared understanding, a social consensus of what is good and right.

So, the question becomes, what sorts of modern virtues do we see as contributing to the good life? There is a growing interest in Europe and the U.S. in the non-material elements of wellbeing, reflected in the explosion of books on happiness over the last few years. The best of these tomes remind us that happiness is not a thing we can find or possess, but a difficult and murky journey guided by broad moral values.


KR: Imagining the good life as a collective state of wellbeing is sometimes seen to contradict individual, self-optimising gain. How do you see the link between these two?

EFF: The balance of private gain and public good is in many ways what defines the values and institutions of a society. We are at a moment (in 2015) of increased openness to redefining this balance in the Anglo-American political economies, as we grapple with finding our way in an emerging post-neoliberal era. And there has been a newfound regard for the virtues of the German social market economy model.

Public debates over executive compensation, the fair trade movement, and recent academic inquiries into the limitations of rational-choice paradigms[iii] all point to the relevance of moral values in our economic decision-making.

All economies are ‘moral’ in the sense that they embody and reproduce certain values about who gets what. Economic systems are built upon assumptions – often taken for granted and naturalized assumptions – about what is good, desirable, worthy, ethical, and just. These are culturally informed and historically particular assumptions, even though some actors (say, policymakers, neoclassical economists, or human rights advocates) struggle to codify certain values as ‘universal’.

Individual material self-interest can, and frequently does, come into conflict with common goods and collective wellbeing (from pastoral tragedies of the commons to Wall Street’s high speed trading). We are self-interested. But not only. Other researchers and I have conducted experimental economic games in different places around the world, and one remarkable and near-universal finding has been that people are more generous than neoclassical theory would predict, and that most people in most places around the world place a high value on fairness (even if they may differ in exactly what ‘fair’ is).[iv] It turns out that people are just as predisposed to cooperate as compete, and that we often act in ways counter to our own material self-interest to show commitment to an idea (such as ‘fairness’) or a person (a beloved) or a collective.

What I found in talking with Maya farmers in Guatemala and German shoppers in Hannover is that one key element of wellbeing and conception of the good life is commitment to a larger project, a project that goes beyond one’s narrowly defined self-interest. These may be broader or narrower, from mastering a skill to stopping climate change; and they need not be what we would consider positive or acceptable (from religious proselytizing to hate-group fervour). But it is a commitment to something bigger that helps give meaning to our mundane struggles.

In the Aristotelian tradition, virtues are individually lived but collectively defined; we are all part of moral communities. Understanding happiness and wellbeing in this context means that we have to look at the larger context and not just the individual.

To come back to economics, economists distinguish between two sorts of preferences, stated (the sometimes crazy things people say they want) and revealed (what they really do). It is thought that when the rubber hits the road and the cash changes hands, one’s true preferences are revealed: actions speak louder than words. Yet, what we in anthropology bring to the table is an acute sensitivity to what people say as well as what they do. I have found that people’s stated preferences are often more pro-social and with longer time horizons than revealed preferences might suggest. Perhaps, then, new sorts of public policy might take seriously the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of people and develop structures which, with our consent, help us to be our better selves.


KR: You argue that markets are ultimately a tool to provide  everyone  with access to a good life. In a time that has been documented by Thomas Piketty and others as witnessing greater and greater inequalities, what attempts do you see to make markets into a tool for bringing about a good life?

EFF: Markets are neither inherently good or inherently bad, although anthropologists have historically tended to focus on the corrosive effects of markets on traditional lifeways and the ways in which global markets disadvantage marginalized peoples. This can make it difficult to engage economists, who tend to see markets as the primary route for people to achieve the good life. In this context, it is useful to view markets as Foucauldian technologies that can be used toward various ends.

Markets can and do erode certain social relations. Marx famously showed how the anonymity of markets tore apart the social relations that had previously bound individuals at both production and consumption ends. And many markets in this privatized, securitized, globalized world are stacked against the common person — a retiree saving a modest nest egg is no match for the quants who come up with sophisticated financial instruments.

Yet, It may be the case that market interactions can strengthen and promote social relations as well as erode them. James Ferguson, in his recent book Give a Man a Fish[v], describes what he terms a “rightful share” of collective wealth; he shows that while money and markets alienate, they also build social relations. And anthropologist Daniel Miller has shown in his A Theory of Shopping[vi] (1998) how the task of supermarket shopping is at once market transaction and a deeply meaningful part of familial love.

Markets are a tool — one tool, not the tool, nor are they naturally or scientifically better than other tools. They are more efficient than most, and thus their spread and success. Markets (specifically capitalist markets) have contributed to the dramatic lengthening of life spans and greater material prosperity for the many as well as the few over the long twentieth century.[vii] It is uneven, for sure, and filled with injustices large and small. But in terms of efficiency of production and distribution, capitalist markets do it amazingly well.

At the same time, we have come to see markets as some sort of natural order of things, as if we discovered supply and demand and equilibrium in the same way we uncovered neutrinos and atoms.

But, of course, markets are contrivances, meant to serve our ends rather than vice versa. We can organize them as we see fit. Although in recent years (and decades) we have been too quick to disavow tough moral choices on to the presumed natural forces of the market – it has become (rhetorically and materially) a moral arbiter.

It is difficult for many economists to allow that markets are embedded in particular social and political power structures and that ‘free’ market transactions are often less free than first meets the eye.

Maya coffee farmers I work with generally want more engagement with the market. They would like for it to deliver on more of its meritocratic potential. They just want a fair shake, their rightful share of the spoils of their labour. They know all too well the risks of commodity agricultural production, with its turbulent boom and bust market cycles.

They are acutely aware of the perils of dependency on fickle global markets.

Yet, as they describe it, coffee represents an opportunity in a context of few opportunities, an imperfect but valued means to realizing their desires for a better life; it is tied up with hopes, dreams, and desires that go beyond mere income. What it lacks in stability, it balances with hope, hope for a brighter future.


GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort,’ 1983-85, Martin Parr.


KR: Do you see a distinct attempt to bring together a collective ideal of well-being and market economy in the German notion of a soziale Marktwirtschaft, a social market economy that benefits the individual and society? Has this model successfully survived from its founder Ludwig Erhard into the present day?

EFF: Yes, it is a successful middle ground. Not perfect, with its problems, but still efficiently competitive but humane with lots of dignity and fairness built into the system. Institutions matter, Douglas North reminds us. And Germany has built up a system of co-determination that promotes a particular balance of short-term sacrifice and long-term growth.

It has its problems, as VW’s recent scandal has highlighted. There is a cosiness and collaboration between labour and capital. As with all large German companies, VW’s “works council” (elected by workers) holds half of the corporate supervisory board’s seats. From an Anglo-American perspective, this is incredible, almost unthinkable. But the German model of co-determination treats employees as stakeholders alongside stockholders.

BMW, in the spirit of compromise between capital and labour, made it a policy a few years back that executive wages should not exceed 25 times the company’s average wage. That is still generous by continental standards (although the US is in an all together different league, with Russia and India and China, the USRICs), but is a crucial symbol of the value placed on solidarity.


KR: In your paper “The Good Life: Values, Markets and Wellbeing[viii], you discuss that poverty alleviation is but one aspect of an increase in wellbeing. What other measures are there to promote wellbeing on a societal scale. And what role can policies play in ‘bringing about’ happiness?

EFF: Poverty is not just an absence of income. It is more than that, just as health is about more than the absence of illness, and wellbeing is about more than day-to-day happiness. Poverty results from a lack of agency as well as deficits of material resources; it is intimately related to family relations and social structures; it both leads to and results from ill health. So we need to understand poverty as intensely multidimensional.

It is interesting that what often goes under the rubric of “happiness studies” in the US and UK, is termed “multidimensional approaches to poverty” when applied to the global South. Our choice of terms is revealing, shining a light on the implicit assumption of their need versus our desires. My work tries to break down these implicit and often romantic assumptions about them (whomever they may be), showing that what Maya farmers want for their future, in broad terms, would not be foreign to an Anglo bourgeoisie. Subsistence Maya farmers do not want their kids to be subsistence farmers (as much as we may love to think of the food security and spiritual symbiosis such hard scrabble living conjures in our distantly comfortable circumstances); they hope for something more, something better.

Income is important — let us say that upfront and clearly. Income, or overall material resources, predicate much of the rest of wellbeing. Income is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for wellbeing. As Amartya Sen points out, we also require agency and empowerment, the capabilities to work toward a life that we value.[ix]

This also raises the question of how one measures wellbeing. A single measure of overall subjective wellbeing (SWB as it is know in the literature) may stand in for more complicated metrics. (The question is often something such as: imagine a ladder with ten steps; the lowest step presents the worst possible life you could image and the top step the best possible life imaginable; looking over the course of your life, where would you place it on this ladder?)

This is a pretty good metric, and it is hard to argue with people’s own informed self-perceptions. But it is limited by one’s own (and in the case of the rural poor, often circumscribed) frame of comparison. What is the best possible life one can imagine? How do we come to inhabit this capacity to aspire?

Research from around the world clearly shows that wellbeing depends on income, health and physical security, and strong social relations. These are all domains with clear public policy implications. Thus, if we gave multidimensional wellbeing measures as much weight as we do the fortunes of the FTSE and GDP growth, we would have very different sorts of public policies.

But some key elements of wellbeing are hard to measure: aspiration, dignity, commitment to larger projects.

Arjun Appadurai observes that society struggles with a tension between “the ethics of possibility” (of hope, aspiration, desire) and the “ethics of probability” (of systematized rationalities, risk management, and cost/benefits). And the ethics of probability is currently crowding out the realm of possibility. In his compelling new collection of essays [The Future as Cultural Fact[x]], Appadurai calls for a renewed commitment to an ethics of possibility “grounded in the view that a genuinely democratic politics cannot be based on the avalanche of numbers — about population, poverty, profit, and predation — that threaten to kill all street-level optimism about life and the world. Rather it must build on an ethics of possibility, which can offer a more inclusive platform for improving the planetary quality of life and can accommodate a plurality of visions of the good life.”

I agree, and anthropology has a lot to add to such an ethics of hope. Joel Robbins has advocated an anthropology of the good, I have called for a positive anthropology, Appadurai calls for an ethics of hope, and the list goes on. It is an exciting moment in the field.


KR: What is the role of elites, money, and notions of the good life?

EFF: High levels of inequality seem to be bad for overall metrics of wellbeing. This is exacerbated in our current stage of late capitalism because of the growing importance of symbolic and positional goods that can lead to consumption arms races. (The value of “positional goods” owes more to their scarcity and social identity aspects than to their material properties: the real utility of that $3000 Birkin handbag – to carry stuff around – is about the same as a plastic shopping bag.) We adapt to new material circumstances quickly and then aspire to more.

Status symbols are the iconic example of positional goods. In his book The Darwin Economy, Robert Frank[xi] presents a revealing thought experiment: which world would you choose? In World A, you live in a neighbourhood with 6,000-square-foot houses, while other neighbourhoods have 8,000-square-foot houses; or in World B, where you live in a neighbourhood with 4,000-square-foot houses, others in neighbourhoods with 3,000-square-foot houses.

The materially maximizing rational choice is, of course, World A. But most Americans choose World B. This little exercise reveals that the value of house construction is not just in its pragmatic utility as an abode but in its relative size compared to others.

This leads Frank to the surprising conclusion that a highly progressive consumption tax would not only divert resources toward more productive ends but actually might increase the utility and wellbeing of those same high-income households.


KR: What can anthropology reveal about the role of the good life in the individual- market-state nexus that other disciplines cannot?

EFF: Anthropology is more comfortable offering critiques than positive alternatives, but the possibility exists to combine our critical proclivities with non-prescriptive, ethnographically informed positive alternatives that engage public policy debates. If a society’s goal is to have people live meaningful and fulfilled lives — and not just increase income and consumption at all costs — then we should look to ways to help people realise their longer term goals, the moral projects of their lives, affluence (and its converse, poverty) as seen in all of its multiple dimensions.

This is to advocate studies of economic behaviour that work between the “is” and the “ought” of David Hume’s distinction, between how the world can be empirically shown to work (the “is”) and how the competing and diverse value systems that anthropological research documents can be linked to moral reflection about things might be different (the “ought”).

Perhaps, then, we anthropologists should more fully embrace the constructive possibilities of a positive anthropology. To fully enter into national public discourse, to exert the influence that most of us think we should have, it will be necessary to offer answers as well as critical questions.

Anthropologists shy away from prescriptive stances for good historical and epistemological reasons. Ethnography, in building up knowledge through a dialectical engagement with individuals and communities, continually counters the sorts of generalisations that answering the big questions of public discourse implies: the complexity we observe through the microscopic ethnographic lens resists the essentialising broad strokes required for much punditry.

And yet. And yet. Perhaps we could, even should, try to offer positive alternatives, contextualized in a way that avoids moral judgment — non-prescriptive, non-definitive options that might inspire other ways of looking at particular issues. And, of course, the ethnographic approach is key to understanding how we weigh the different dimensions of wellbeing: what is important, not just what ‘the market’ wants.

A positive anthropology could contribute more readily to public discourses about what the good life should look like, documenting cultural norms, social structures, and institutional arrangements that seem to promote wellbeing in their specific contexts.


[i] Mattingly, C. (2014) Moral Laboratories – Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[ii] Sen, A. (2004) Rationality and Freedom,

Akerlof, G., Shiller, R. (2010) Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[iv] See, for example, Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E.., Gintis, H., McElreath, R., Alvard, M., Barr, A., Ensminger, A., Smith Henrich, N., Hill, K., Gil-White, F., Gurven, M., Marlowe, F. W., Patton, J. Q., Tracer, D. (2005)

Fischer, E. F., Dickins de Giron. A. (2014) Ultimatums and Rationalities in Two Maya Towns. In: Cash on the Table: Markets, Values, and Moral Economies.

[v] Ferguson, J. (2014) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution, Durham: Duke University Press.

[vi] Miller, D. (1988) A Theory of Shopping, London: Polity.

[vii] See, e.g., Deirdre McCloskey, 2012. The Bourgeois Virtues.

Joyce Appleby, 2010. Relentless Revolution.

Jeff Sachs, 2006. The End of Poverty.

[viii] Fischer, E.F. (2012) The Good Life: Values, Markets and Wellbeing, OAC Press, accessible: http://openanthcoop.net/press/2012/09/20/the-good-life-values-markets-and-wellbeing/, accessed: 26/06/2016.

[ix] Sen, Amartya, 1999. Development as Freedom.

[x] Appadurai, A. (2012) The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition, London: Verso.

[xi] Frank, R. H. (2012) The Darwin Economy:

Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Title image:  Switzerland.  St Moritz.  Snow Polo World Cup.  From ‘Luxury,’ 2011, Martin Parr.  


Jonas L. Tinius is a doctoral researcher in the Division of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, U.K. His work explores the dynamics of art traditions, patronage, and aesthetics in relation to German theatre.

Johannes Lenhard is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge. His research is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. He tweets under @acjf37 and is the current editor-in-chief of KR.