Sarah K. Kuhn

Should American multinational companies like Apple, Blizzard, Google, and the NBA promote democratic values around the world even if it means losing profits, or should they abide by local government wishes, including censoring people and information?”

— 2019, Question

Wearables are the new big thing. From Fitbits to Apple Watches to Garmins, there is great pressure to record our steps, heartbeat, and other activities. These objects are supposed to make us healthier and happier. Do they? Or, do we just confuse buying them with accomplishing something?

This same tendency to “externalize” our wellness is found outside of exercise. We subscribe to Netflix and Spotify to make us happy, thinking that having more shows and music is better than having less, and that owning a phone that takes higher resolution photos or plays faster games is always an improvement. People even subscribe to food delivery services like Blue Apron that provides pre-chopped and pre-measured ingredients to make cooking as effortless as possible. Is getting these packages a meaningful substitute for shopping and meal planning, or does it undermine our agency and independence? Can we even say that Blue Apron patrons have the same “ownership” over their food? In short, are we all giving up too much to the services that make our lives easier? Are we ending up with too much stuff and not enough self-knowledge?

These are the themes and puzzles that run through this year’s Glassheim essay question: “Do people today confuse having stuff with well-being?” We are interested in essays that examine whether we are being misled into thinking that personal wellness is better achieved by providing more options, more convenience, more technology, and more objects. Of course, we may not be wrong. Wearables provide incredible information for athletes and streaming services offer people access to some of the greatest entertainment ever created. When it comes to Blue Apron, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making people’s lives easier, especially when everyone is so busy. Self-knowledge is a complicated process.

Your essay should examine both sides of the issue and present an argument for one or the other. It should strive to be fair, not polemical, and connect examples from popular culture, literature, science, or any other arena that helps clarify the controversy. It can also use evidence from political science, anthropology, psychology, history, economics, sociology, or any other discipline that asks about the human social experience. But first and foremost, this is a philosophy essay, so it should examine the key ideas and terms found in and around the question. Some examples of relevant questions are: What is wellness? Is buying something the same as doing something? What is independence? What is agency? How do we motivate change? What is the relationship between what we do and who we are? What does it mean to know yourself?

The essay should be written for a general audience, not for a class or a teacher. It should be clear, thoughtful, and accessible to an average college student, not super technical or confusingly abstract. The essays should not be research papers, have extensive quotes, or have excessive footnotes. Classroom assignments will not be accepted without significant revision. Writers are encouraged to refer to specific philosophers and schools of thought, but these ideas and references must be presented in lay language, for the most part. Finally, essays will not be evaluated on what position they argue for. All conclusions have equal opportunity to win. IPPL is non-partisan and non-ideological.


Click here to return to the Eliot Glassheim Essay Contest information page.