A New World View Struggles to Emerge: Are We Seeing the Emergence of a New View of What Makes Life Worth Living? an Australian Scholar Looks at the Conflicting Evidence

Article excerpt

While most people profess to being happy and satisfied with their own lives, many surveys reveal widespread public disquiet about the modern way of life. A frequent criticism of these studies is that they reflect what people say--and have probably always said--when it is what they do that provides a truer measure of social preferences. This claim is partially valid, but it overlooks two things: the cultural pressures that push people to behave in ways contrary to their beliefs and the growing evidence that a profound change is taking place, not just in attitudes, but in lifestyles.

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Evidence of the moral tension in modern life is unequivocal, and evidence that people want to do, and are doing, something about it is growing. Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay, while noting the social dangers inherent in the process of detachment and disengagement evident in Australia (and elsewhere), says many people are exploring the meaning of their lives and connecting with their most deeply held values. The gap between "what I believe in" and "how I live" is uncomfortably wide for many of us, and we are looking for ways to narrow it, he says.

"We want to express our values more clearly and live in ways that make us feel better about ourselves," Mackay explains. Whether this search for meaning is expressed in religion, New Age mysticism, moral reflection, or love and friendship, the goal is the same: "to feel that our lives express who we are and that we are living in harmony with the values we claim to espouse."

Many Americans are upset about the direction of their lives, but find it difficult to imagine how their course could be altered, says one U.S. study, Yearning for Balance, by the Harwood Group. Yet the research identified a degree of consensus about the nature of the problem that Americans face--an essential ingredient for creating broadly supported, meaningful, and sustained change. "People from all walks of life share similar concerns about a culture of materialism and excess, and the consequences for future generations," according to the report. "Many are surprised and excited to find that others share their views." People associated the public discourse with acrimony, divisiveness, and gridlock; most did not want any part of it. "When they hear each other describe common concerns about misplaced values, children, and the environment, and have a chance to explain their longing for a more balanced life, a spark appears--people begin to imagine the possibility of change."

And this possibility of change is becoming a reality. Recent studies by U.S. researchers Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth anderson reveal that a quarter of Americans are cultural creatives, people who have a made a comprehensive shift in their world view, values, and way of life. Surveys in European Union countries suggest there are at least as many cultural creatives there. As Ray and Anderson note, "They are disenchanted with 'owning more stuff,' materialism, greed, me-firstism, status display, glaring social inequalities of race and class, society's failure to care adequately for elders, women and children, and the hedonism and cynicism that pass for realism in modern society." Instead, they are placing emphasis in their lives on relationships, communities, spirituality, nature and the environment, and real ecological sustainability.

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Cultural creatives represent a coalescence of social movements that are concerned not just with influencing government, but also with reframing issues in a way that changes how people understand the world. Ray and Anderson say that in the 1960s less than 5% of the population was making these momentous changes. In little more than a generation, that proportion has grown to 26%. "That may not sound like much in this age of nanoseconds, but on the timescale of whole civilizations, where major developments are measured in centuries, it is shockingly quick. …