As London prepares for 24-hour tube services and the way opens for 7-day shopping, how much commerce do we really need and what’s it doing to us?

Thought for the Day 10.07.2015

If you struggled to and from work in London yesterday because of the tube strike, you have my sympathy. Behind it was the plan to run underground services through the night, making London a true 24-hour city and boosting it’s nighttime economy. Meanwhile, Wednesday’s Budget included a consultation on proposals to devolve powers on Sunday opening to local authorities.

The case for these changes is that they bring jobs and economic growth. But they also bring the prospect of  seven-day High Streets and a nation that never stops shopping while the non-commercial sphere keeps declining.

The values found in Buddhist teachings offer an alternative to those bound up with the market forces. The Four Noble Truths – the central Buddhist teaching – hold that the suffering and unsatisfactoriness, that are so apparent wherever we look, arise from craving. We search for happiness in things that can’t really provide it because the act of grasping them feeds the very dissatisfaction we wish them to allay. The alternative is asking, ‘What really brings us enduring happiness?’

Buddhism focuses on inner qualities such as contentment and mindful awareness, which foster a kind of inner flourishing that’s independent of external conditions. Sometimes the Buddhist perspective is characterised as indulgently accepting whatever happens; but for Buddhists selfishness is, in fact, the problem. The alternative includes compassion, ethical endeavour and selfless action.

These questions are also posed by advocates of ‘wellbeing’ and they underlie the government’s National Wellbeing Index, which augments statistics on GDP by looking at health and personal satisfaction. There’s no denying the benefits of rising living standards or the continuing needs of millions around the world for greater material security. At the same time, I think many would agree that the quality of our lives, rather than the quantity of our goods, is the key to our happiness and fulfilment, and that in some ways consumer culture contributes to the problems facing our society and the planet.

Given the power of the market, balancing it requires us to bring our full attention to non-economic sources of wellbeing, both in society and our own lives. What would it mean to make quality, rather than quantity, the touchstone of our lives and the benchmark of public policy? It’s a fundamental question that has the power to influence how we spend our time and when we can go shopping.