Research News

What is the good life?

As another year draws to a close and we start to consider what changes we want to make in the coming year, Vanderbilt anthropologist and World Health Organization wellbeing adviser Ted Fischer has some thoughts about where to start.

“It’s not just money, and I think we’re realizing that more and more,” Fischer said. “But that’s a big realization because for a long time we’ve thought that money is the answer.”

Fischer is the author of “The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity and the Anthropology of Wellbeing,” published by Stanford University Press. In “The Good Life,” Fischer studied German supermarket shoppers and Guatemalan coffee farmers to discover what hopes and dreams they share, and how anthropology can tell us about what the “good life” means for all of us.

Fischer describes the good life not as a goal in and of itself, but a journey. The good life entails having realistic aspirations to direct that journey, sufficient opportunity to realize those aspirations, a sense of dignity and being able to pursue a life with purpose. Fischer found that these principles hold true for both middle-class Germans and poor Guatemalan Mayans. And, he suggests, we have a lot to learn from understandings of wellbeing around the world for our own lives and livelihoods.

Here are some of Fischer’s findings:


“I’ve been working with Mayan farmers in Guatemala for many years, and I’ve long been struck by how similar what they would like out of life is to what we want out of life,” Fischer said. We tend to assume the poor are exclusively driven by need, while wealthier people are driven by desire, he says, but the reality is that once a person’s basic needs are addressed, everyone tends to want the same sort of things. The scale and details may differ—the Mayan farmer may aspire to send their child to the private Catholic school and buy a new truck, while a comparatively wealthy German supermarket shopper may yearn to make more expensive improvements—but at root they are strikingly similar. They want to improve their lots, and they want their children to have better lives than they had.


While we may all aspire to something better, aspirations don’t mean much without adequate opportunity to realize them, Fischer said. The Mayan farmers are a good example of this. Guatemala has been a major coffee producer since the 19th century, but until very recently, most of it was grown on large, low-altitude plantations that mass-produced coffee for major coffee companies. The Maya, who lived and farmed food crops at higher altitudes, would come down from the mountains to work as laborers on the plantations in order to make ends meet. It was a job of last resort—the work was backbreaking, they were poorly treated and the pay was low. Recently, however, a market has emerged for coffee grown at very high altitudes, allowing the Maya to grow coffee on their own land instead of down on the plantations. This shift in the market gave the Maya the opportunity to transform from laborers to entrepreneurs—a transformation that has had tangible economic and social benefits for Maya communities. Aspirations without opportunity lead to frustrations, even societal upheaval, as was seen with the Arab Spring, Fischer said.


The desire to live with dignity is universal. In Guatemala, the high-end coffee market allows the Maya to support their families by owning their own labor and working on their own land. Additionally, they take pride in being able to produce a luxury product that is in high demand. In Germany, workers’ dignity is very important. Many trades have guilds regulating and credentialing tradecrafts, formalizing the expertise necessary to become a master baker or bike mechanic. Additionally, there is a strong distinction between work and personal time—as inconvenient as it is for shoppers, stores close at 6 on weeknights and 2 on Saturdays in order to preserve work-life balance for sales staff.


Being able to live according to a greater purpose is the final component of the good life. While aspirations tend to be smaller, individual goals, purpose encompasses the big-picture ideals to which we dedicate our lives. “It could be big things like religion; it could be small things like our trade or craft–but we want to be committed to something bigger than ourselves,” Fischer said. In Germany there is a strong belief that markets should be moral—that products should be conscientiously produced and that workers’ rights be protected. So when most Germans state a preference for fair-trade, organic, humanely raised eggs, they are advancing the cause of creating moral markets.

Positive anthropology and public policy

An economist will point out that a lot of Germans don’t actually end up buying the conscientiously produced eggs they say they prefer, but rather opt for the cheaper alternatives. But Fischer said that understanding that the preference exists in the first place is as important to good public policy as understanding what people ultimately end up doing. Anthropologists are the ones who ask those questions.

Using anthropology to inform public policy is a valuable way for policymakers to finally confront the thornier issues of wellbeing. “The question we have to ask,” Fischer said, “Is what kind of society do we want to live in?”