Maria Zambrano* lives in the highlands of Ecuador’s Cotacachi Canton, home to two of the world’s 36 internationally recognized biodiversity hots pots. It is also home to a people fiercely committed to their own social and environmental well-being. Zambrano is an Indigenous Ecuadorian of the Kichwa people. Sitting at a café in Cotacachi, the seamstress is dressed in a black wrap-around skirt and a traditional embroidered white shirt, on which she’s done all the embroidery. The colorful stitching, she explains, is symbolic of her land, depictions of the connection between humans and Pachamama, which she uses to refer to Mother Earth. Pachamama, she says, is at the heart of everything she does.
Continuing on the idea of self-mastery from the last blog post, I’d like to take a minute to discuss why we need to decolonise our ideas of wellbeing. By refocusing how we approach our individual and collective wellbeing through mental, physical, emotional control, we can have more positive interactions with those around us and the environment that sustains us.
On a personal note, I have been concentrating on finishing my first book, and writing for media to get the understanding of Buen Vivir out into a wider audience whilst being a Mother my two young children. I could have overextended myself, as society generally expects, and kept up with the blog, engaged more in academia, and pursued more projects at the same time; but when you work on an idea that promotes a decolonised view of wellbeing you start to change the way you think.
We have been far too busy for far too long. The neoliberal and indeed capitalist systems require us to keep the cogs of the economic wheel turning for continual economic growth, wealth creation and accumulation. When you take a step back from the daily grind, its easier to stop and ask ourselves: “Do I need to be this busy? What impact is this having on my wellbeing and that of those around me?”
Some people need to keep themselves, and their minds occupied. I am one of those people. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I cannot be everything to everyone, everywhere. It is a question of priorities, and stepping back to ask what really matters today? I am learning to ask: What are my needs, the needs of my family and those around me, and will this task contribute to satisfying them? If the answer is no, then I find something else to keep my mind engaged. Rather than the endless pursuit of busyness, work and errands, I turn to cooking, art or music. The benefits are multiplied if I do this with family and friends.
You see, we are living in Generation Burnout.
Experts are finding a link between capitalist societies and mental-health disorders as the leading cause of life expectancy decline behind cardiovascular disease and cancer. The forced change of pace from COVID-19 has been a welcomed aspect of lockdown on that front (without disregarding its other impacts of course).
In the book ‘Monopoly Capital’, by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy argue that capitalism fails “to provide the foundations of a society capable of promoting the healthy and happy development of its members.”
It is glaringly obvious that neoliberal approaches to wellbeing, anchored in capitalism, and measured by busyness, wealth and GDP have not worked. So, logically it is time to decolonise the way we conceive wellbeing.
There are many global alternatives to wellbeing that are both practiced and philosophised in traditional and Indigenous communities and radical circles. The Latin-American concept of Buen Vivir captured my attention however for two of many reasons: 1) not only does it include human wellbeing, but it also encapsulates environmental wellbeing; and 2) it has potential applicability outside of these niche communities.
Oftentimes we are engaged in this idea of busyness because of a societal expectation that we continually generate wealth. It goes beyond our needs and to our perceived desires. I say perceived because as anyone who has ever suffered from burnout will tell you, they work so much that they do not have time to enjoy the wealth that they have accumulated. Not only do decolonised ideas like Buen Vivir step away from a linear perspective of wellbeing gauged by economic growth, but they discourage it.
If we constantly strive for more and more, where is the endpoint?
Buen Vivir focuses on the collective. Although Buen Vivir is not about individual wellbeing as an outcome, its principles of reciprocity with nature, respect, participation, and education do demand that individuals change their own behaviours. This flow-on effects on the wellbeing of both society and the environment, for the greater good of the collective.
Those aforementioned questions of priorities also extend to reflect on how our choices affect both those around us and the wellbeing of the natural environment. After all, there is a direct correlation between the subjective wellbeing of the individual, and the collective wellbeing of a community and vice-versa. Moreover, when we feel more connected to nature, we are more inclined to protect its wellbeing.
When we make time for ourselves and our loved ones, along with more time to reconnect with nature, we experience greater physical and emotional wellbeing. It slows us down and revives us, and satisfies intangible needs that amplify wellbeing.
The way Buen Vivir approaches satisfying our needs in both a tangible and intangible way, means a move away from the neoliberal capitalist society that is having detrimental impacts on both human and environmental wellbeing, towards a more just (and healthy!) society.
What do you think of when someone talks about the ‘Good Life’? There are many ideas about what the ‘Good Life’ should look like, most of them involving wealth accumulation.
What if I suggested that a Good Life should no longer revolve around wealth and economic growth, but should be something that enhances and protects the wellbeing of humans as part of a broader community, and that it should also protect the wellbeing of our environment? After all, one cannot really exist without the other. That is the aim of the Latin American conception of the Good Life: Buen Vivir.
Buen Vivir is a complex concept for social and environmental sustainability based on Indigenous worldviews – one that has evolved over time to include ideas from politics, academia and non-Indigenous communities.
It’s about abandoning old ideas of individual happiness backed by an accumulation of wealth and economic growth, towards a life with more intention, a reciprocity with nature and embracing the idea of community.
As an alternative to sustainable development, it addresses the gaps in policy that have led to the type of social and environmental injustices we see today. Policies that are driven by top-down visions of what communities need. These injustices are part of the structural failures that are driving climate change.
You may of heard of other culturally-originated concepts like the Danish Hygge or Lakom, the South African Ubuntu, or the Japanese Ikigai. But what stands Buen Vivir apart from these other cultural concepts is that it is both an aspirational goal that can be used by the likes of governments and policymakers to ensure a more socially and environmentally just order; but on the flip side, it is also a lifestyle driven by the same key principles.
Just what those key principles are I will discuss in later posts, but this means that Buen Vivir has both the potential to change policy for more responsive and participatory democracies, but it is also rooted in the attitudes, behaviours and practices of individuals and their communities. Both feed into each other, but ultimately it starts with the people. And that’s the beauty of it.
Buen Vivir’s ability to marry both people’s behaviour with policy is one of the most important parts of the concept, and it is why I have chosen to focus on developing a framework tool that not only helps guide communities for the changes they want to see to meet their own needs, and implement Buen Vivir within their own homes and communities; but also helps guide government institutions when working with communities and their needs to make sure that the developmental goals match the community realities.
The most crucial aspect of Buen Vivir though lies in the way both policymakers and communities change the way we view our relationship with each other and with our earth.
That is where Buen Vivir has the innovative ability to ensure both social and environmental wellbeing – of our communities and our planet. Sustainable communities for a sustainable earth for generations to come. In these challenging times, that is exactly what we should be aiming for.