If you have ever faced the diagnosis of a terminal illness or been present as a loved one dies you know deep in your heart that those who face the prospect (or reality) of a shortened existence think very differently about the world and their place in it.

Have I lived a fulfilling life? Have I been a good friend/spouse/parent? Why didn’t I leave that soul-destroying job and pursue my dreams? Why did I let myself become angst ridden over “having”  to own the latest car or new sofa/TV/home appliance?

It seems that at the one time in our life when everything is laid bare and the truly important issues come to mind we reflect not on wealth, material goods, social status but rather happiness, legacy, a fulfilled life and strong relationships. Therefore either all terminal diseases attack the brain and distort brain function to “make” us believe that being good is better than being rich OR the shock of a diagnosis of a terminal illness brings clarity to an otherwise confused life.

Much has been written about the nation of Bhutan. It is a very poor nation that has only recently started to become part of the 21st-century world. The Bhutanese people are Buddhists and this in turn creates the model that suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. They have this wonderful desire to measure not GDP but rather GNH (Gross National Happiness).

The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

Visitors to this very poor country marvel at how content the people are. Truly content, and yet how can this be so? Why aren’t they demonstrating in the streets demanding their right to buy a 50-inch LED HD TV and to have access to 450 gaming machines and a humongous, disgusting “club” to house these testaments to the stupidity of mankind? It is infuriating to those who are convinced that just focusing on your personal needs and the pursuit of financial wealth will of themselves lead to a happier life.

In his book Affluenza, Clive Hamilton references the dramatic increase in real net worth of Australian families from the 1950s to now. i.e. most of us are much, much richer than our peers were some 50 years ago. Yet survey after survey tells us that we are no happier than we were as a nation 50 years ago and in fact many measures (e.g. pro-rata prescriptions of ant-depressants) suggest we are a much sadder bunch than our peers in the 1950s. As we have hoarded more and more we want more and more and as we get more and more we become sadder and sadder.

Interestingly also over the past 50 years there has been a significant drop off in all forms of volunteering. Whether it is the formalised groups such as Rotary or APEX, church groups, school parent groups, or just getting parents to coach sports teams — wherever you look, the number of people spending time on voluntary work is declining. Of course, people are volunteering, however, in declining numbers. Is it that community groups need less help or that we care less because we are too focused on our own needs?

Abraham Maslow was the father of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs whose work on the motivations of humans was seminal in the development of many psychological models and a general understanding of why we do things. In his book, Maslow on Management, he discusses a search for the sub-section of the human race that seemed the most fulfilled, most productive group.

In his travels he came across the Blackfoot Indians of Canada. Here he found a tribe where the cultural and societal constructs that exist in our Western world were turned on their head. In the Blackfoot tribe there was no dominant leader. If the tribe went to war, then the most logical war-like tribe member took over leadership. If the tribe needed to hunt, then the best hunter became leader and if they needed to grow crops, then the most skilled agriculturalist became the leader.

Further in the tribe, social status was a function of giving. The more you gave the more you were respected. This applied to information as well as material goods. Here Maslow found a group of people very comfortable with themselves as individuals, all without a need to prove to anyone else that they added value as inherently every person adds value. No one had to gain and retain wealth to prove their worth nor did they have to fight to gain and retain a leadership role to prove their worth.

I would suggest that the single biggest issue in our society today is a declining lack of generosity and this lack of generosity is apparent at every level of our society.

In philanthropic/donation terms on any comparable metric we are not a very giving nation and our wealthy are particularly good at being greedy and hoarding all their riches for themselves. Australians like to think of themselves as generous and philanthropic. The numbers, sadly, tell another story.

We watch with great sadness the devastation of the Pakistan floods but can’t seem to get off the new leather sofa to donate funds to people who have done nothing to deserve the devastation that the floods wrought.

We like the fact that we have community groups but most of us can’t be bothered to attend any of them or help out in any meaningful way.

In political discourse we increasingly see the other side as being full of corrupt, ideological whack jobs whose only goal is the destruction of Australia. Why is it that we can’t look at every issue with an open mind and with a generous spirit assuming that people who have given their life to work in politics are more often than not good people?

Why is it that complaints to and about schools are increasing? Is it that our schools are doing a worse job now than they were 20 years ago? Or perhaps we, as parents, assume the worst of our teachers and schools and any issue with our child must be the result of incompetence.

We are too focused on our own needs and on hoarding more with the sad result that we lack the ability to care for others or approach life with a generous demeanor and spirit.

So what to do?  In every debate you need someone to set the other boundary condition — in effect be the crazy guy that is so extreme that they force a more reasonable outcome. Here goes …

  • Allow our wealthy to donate 20% of any wealth over $20 million or institute an estate tax to take it off them on their death.
  • Work out how to limit the REAL work week to less than 45 hours. Anyone working more than this will have trouble being a good father, spouse, friend or community member.
  • Provide for tax breaks for people that undertake community work. I realise that we should not have to pay people to undertake community work but we need to restart the engine.
  • Have corporate boards sack CEOs who display rude, violent, environmentally corrupt or anti-social behaviour and shareholders should sack board that do not move on poorly behaved CEOs. (This should be interesting).
  • Penalise banks and financial institutions that convince people to take on more debt than they should.
  • Cancel all gaming licences for casinos and poker machines in pubs. These devices do nothing but harm the fabric of our society.
  • Cancel the radio licence of any talk-back station that broadcasts factually incorrect rants by its talk-back jocks or nutters masking as journalists.
  • Moreover have our leaders start a dialogue, bipartisan, about what really matters in our lives and how we can become a more generous nation made up of more fulfilled, happy, generous people.

This essay is part of Crikey’s Big Ideas series. We’ve had enough of sound bites set on repeat, glib slogans and half-baked committees  —  we’re looking for the vision thing. One Crikey subscriber will also get the chance to share their Big Idea with our readers: send us a three-line pitch, on an issue of national importance that gets you fired up, to [email protected] with “Big Ideas” in the subject line.

Peter Fray

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