Interview with Professor Daniel Miller

Ahead of Daniel's appearance at We Invented the Weekend, we had the chance to ask him some questions

daniel miller good enough life manchester lit and phil we invented the weekend

Daniel Miller’s book ‘The Good Enough Life’ is an original exploration of what life could and should be, based on his study of the residents of Skerries. We had the chance to ask him some questions ahead of his appearance at the We Invented the Weekend Festival on Sunday 16 June.


Q: Does the ‘good life’ as typified by the residents of Skerries represent a transplantable model or framework that might be applied elsewhere? Or must a truly happy community reach an equivalent equilibrium independent of outside influences?

A: In my book I detail the many factors that have come together to explain why people praise their town as the basis of a good life. For example, it is a town large enough that people feel some autonomy and small enough to expect to greet friends when they go out for a walk. I show why it was important that the community was largely created by migrants (blow-ins) rather than its historical population. I examine their deep commitment to family and the community. There is an egalitarian ethos and for the retirees I worked with, a freedom from obligations that may last now for decades. I assume that other places favoured by their residents share some of these traits and lack others. While entirely other factors may be relevant.

In considering outside factors, for Skerries, as an Irish town, this includes a relatively stable government, and a sense that they have benefited considerably from the EU. I also noted a marked desire to differentiate themselves from what they see as the divisive politics of Northern Ireland, as opposed to their highly consensual local politics. So yes, an equivalent place elsewhere is likely to require its own equilibrium of both inside and outside influences.


Q: How should we measure success and happiness in a society that often equates these concepts with wealth and consumption? What alternative metrics could be more meaningful?

A: The key point here is that we should not be imposing our criteria for what makes a good life onto another population. My book is not based on my judgment that this was a happy place. I wrote this book because the people of the town went on and on about how much they loved living there and saw it as the source of their happiness. My job was to find out why?

With regard to wealth and consumption, the standard of living in this average Irish town is now slightly higher than the UK and it may be significant that most of the people I worked with were born in poverty and appreciate the benefits of living what they would call a comfortable life. But status in the town today comes almost entirely from public commitments to environmental welfare and sustainability, while conspicuous consumption is scorned.

“For these reasons the key metric is whatever the people themselves use to measure their sense that they are living the good enough life, and then the task is to explain why they favour this measure.”


Q: How do different cultures define and pursue a ’good’ life? Are there universal principles, or is it highly context-dependent?

A: I have worked as an anthropologist in places ranging from India and London, to the Caribbean and Ireland. The universal that lies behind my book comes from the observation that many societies have a similar term to our word good. A word that links being a morally upright (good) person to the idea of having an enjoyable (good) time. Linking these two seems to be an ideal, irrespective of whether one does in fact depend on the other.

But both senses of this word, what makes a person moral and what makes life enjoyable, will be highly context dependent. The farmers I lived with in an Indian village would look aghast at the criteria that I found in secular Skerries.

“My discipline of anthropology is committed to reminding people of just how distinct each population remains with regard to such judgments. We need to respect the degree that things we assume are obvious and neutral are actually nothing of the kind.”


Q: How does our environment, both natural and built, shape our happiness and quality of life? Are there particular types of environments that are universally beneficial?

A: I have lived in several places where people depended mainly on what they grew as farmers or fished and had very few commodities. Some were mainly content and others mainly miserable. I don’t romanticise the condition of peoples who have limited access to medicine and education, whose economic security depends on the weather and whose lives are generally shorter than ours. In turn I suspect you have been to cities you really would rather not live in and some you find attractive propositions. Clearly living in a city is no guarantee of a good life either.

One thing about the environment is for sure –  if Skerries is a happy place, it’s certainly not because of the weather (!). There are elements of the environment most of us enjoy, such as beautiful landscapes while few find inspiration in an industrial wasteland. But more generally I think it is social and cultural values that have much more influence on happiness and the quality of our lives.


Q: How has technology changed the way we form and maintain communities? Can virtual communities offer the same depth of connection as physical ones?

As with many populations, people in Skerries tend to be very negative if you ask them about social media and smartphones in general. But the same people can be quite positive when I discuss particular apps, or how Facebook has become a community platform. Older people suffer greatly from a digital divide if they feel unable to use these technologies but may then enjoy a reconnection with their youth if they do subsequently master them.

What we need right now are not quick judgments suggesting these technologies are good or bad, but long-term scholarly observations of the hundreds of ways these technologies impact our lives.

That’s why I lived in Skerries for 16 months before thinking that I had any understanding of this question.  Dividing the world into the physical and the virtual doesn’t work either. Hardly anyone lives just online or without any online. It a constant blending of the two.

Our team has written thousands of pages based on our observations around the world. You can read about the results of this research through our free books, such as The Global Smartphone, or How The World Changed Social Media. The point is that discussion of this question needs to be evidence led.


Thank you to Daniel for taking the time to answer our questions. Daniel was interviewed by Isabella Parkes on behalf of Manchester Lit & Phil.

Professor Daniel Miller will be interviewed by Dr Sheila McCormick from the University of Salford as part of the We Think Big talks at the We Invented the Weekend festival, on Sunday 16 June 2024. Visit the festival’s website for more information.

professor daniel miller

Professor Daniel Miller

Daniel Miller is a professor of anthropology at the department of anthropology, University College London. Most of Daniel’s past research has concerned the study of material culture and digital anthropology.  He has carried out fieldwork in Ireland, London, Trinidad, India and several other regions.

Previous books include The Comfort of Things (2008), Stuff (2010), How the World Changed Social Media (with others 2016), The Global Smartphone (with others 2021). He is currently jointly editing books on The Anthropology of Retirement, Digital Anthropology in China, and an Anthropological Approach to mHealth.

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up to our e-newsletter to receive exclusive content and all the latest Lit & Phil news

* indicates required