Happiness and sustainability. These words are thrown around a lot these days. They’re both loaded with meaning, both something that most of us strive to achieve in our lives.
But is being both happy and sustainable possible?
Before we go ahead and rework our lives, making them happy and sustainable, we need to understand what this means. From the outset, it sounds appealing. I’m reading this thinking, “I want to be happy. I want it to be sustainable. Yes, this sounds good!” In order to pursue something you need to understand exactly what it is, so let’s unpack it a little.
What is happiness?
This seems like an odd question. Strangely enough when you Google it the first definition that pops up is alarmingly unhelpful. According to the Oxford Dictionary, happiness is “the state of being happy.” Groundbreaking. If you dig a little deeper, you start to uncover a bit more oomph behind this “state of being happy”—words like contentment, pleasure, satisfaction and cheerfulness. Happiness is a feeling. Perhaps we can also define it by what it is not. It’s the opposite of sadness. It’s not sombre. It’s not uncertain; happiness is something safe.
Positive Psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky defines happiness as “subjective well-being”. In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, she describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.” It captures happiness in all its forms. The fleeting flutter of joy that comes and goes throughout your day and of course, the overarching sense that your life is good, your life is full. I want to hone in on one word from her definition – meaningful. To me, this is the key link to sustainability.
What makes us happy?
After World War II, we started equating happiness with money. Suddenly we were branded by our countries GDP and our “success”, be it first or third-world, was measurable. There’s no doubt that the welfare of a nation directly correlates to its people’s happiness. Research conducted by Dr Kahneman and Dr Deaton in the 2011 Gallup Business Journal, suggests that happiness comes from money. But not too much of it.
The journal also suggests that the Beatles had it right when they said: “I get by with a little help from my friends”. Emotional well-being depends on your relationships with people. Whether its friends, family or partners, your interactions with other people affect your well-being. While it feels like stock-standard advice, improving your relationships will improve your happiness. Make those relationships sustainable, and you’re really in the money!
What is sustainability?
Back to our old friend the Oxford Dictionary we go. By basic definition, sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a specific rate or level. If you take it a step further when referring to the environmental context, it’s “the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance.” It’s a buzz word in today’s world as we tackle the damage we’ve done to our natural systems, trying to mend the ecosystems we’ve broken. The concept of sustainability is inherently good.
According to the Brundtland Report released in 1987, sustainability refers to development that “satisfies the needs of the present without adversely affecting the conditions for future generations”. It highlights the interconnectedness of economic, social and ecological processes that ultimately define our well-being. One cannot be sustainable without considering the three core pillars that form its foundation; economic, social and environmental. When you think about sustainable happiness, you can’t be one-dimensional. If you’re going to drive to live this way, you’ve got to believe in 3D. Today’s actions will undoubtedly affect the future, and ultimately, you’ll be striving for that beautiful cohesion of performance and meaning.
What is sustainable happiness?
Dr Catherine O’Brien, the author of Education For Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being, coined the term “sustainable happiness” in this very title. She defines it as “happiness that contributes to individual, community or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.” It’s about reflection and opportunity about individuals and the community—well-being for all.
O’Brien developed the concept intending to stimulate discussions regarding our relationship with happiness, well-being and sustainability. We have the opportunity to engage in sustainable happiness daily. Perhaps we just need to uncover how.
When it comes to practising sustainable happiness, O’Brien refers to a simple example as the perfect starting point. Think of your morning coffee. Where does it come from, and is it fair-trade? In other words, is it coffee that was grown and harvested with respect for workers and the environment? If it isn’t, take a step back and make this your first change. Small actions like this in your own life, permeate to your community. They bring you sustainable joy each morning, and by making those choices you’re helping to bring joy to those around you, those who work for the coffee companies and the farmers who source your very beans, it’s about “the common future”. If we all did this before tucking into our morning brew, think of the difference it could make.
So, how do we rewire our brains?
Our brains naturally jump to negative conclusions. We are driven by a sense of instant gratification and comparison along with feelings of fear, desire and even anger. These are all part of our fight or flight hard-wiring, designed to protect us in the short-term. But, there are ways we can rewrite this complex system, jumping to happiness instead, focusing on the long-term.
Over the years, meditation hasn’t always had the best associations. People see it as voodoo chanting in the woods or mind games for the ultimate yogis. While these may be forms of meditation, they aren’t the only ones. Quite simply, meditation is the act of quietening the mind. It doesn’t have to be for hours at a time, even two-minutes a day will make a difference.
According to a recent study at Harvard on positive psychology, we consistently associate gratitude with greater happiness. It helps you feel more positive emotions, encouraging you to relish the good things no matter how small. The more you do this, the more you’ll notice and the more you’ll have to be grateful for. Add that to your fair-trade coffee experiment!
Take More Walks
The simple act of walking outside at least 3-times a week is proven to develop feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. Active people are more likely to experience these pleasant feelings activated by the great outdoors. It doesn’t mean you have to become the next Olympic athlete or even an obsessive walker, start by taking the time to go outside and take a breath. You can also use this time to practice your meditation and gratitude all in one.
Whether it’s in your head, on your phone or a piece of paper, make at least one realistic goal every day. If you make sure it’s achievable, you’ll get used to that feeling of accomplishment, and before you know it you’ll be setting bigger goals. Start small – it can be something as simple as “wash my hair today and enjoy it.” Own the little goals, and soon your brain will start to recognise the joy you get from completing them.
Stop The “I’ll Be Happy When…” Thoughts
This very way of thinking is responsible for so much anguish in today’s society. The “I’ll be happy when” syndrome is the belief that you’ll only experience joy when you do or obtain something specific. While setting daily goals helps craft feelings of accomplishments, your life doesn’t need to become a to-do-list. Don’t let it become a check-list of activities you assume will bring you happiness. Most of the time you get so wrapped up in those that the little daily joys, like the perfect bowl of oats, fall by the wayside.
This last point is crucial if you want to find sustainable happiness. You can’t spend your life searching for the next thing to tick off your happiness list. You’ve got to live a life that’s sustainable for you, your community and your world. That happiness needs to be something you’re able to work towards and experience all at the same time. Mind games, I know.
Join The Happiness Movement
There is no doubt in my mind that happiness and sustainability are intrinsically linked. We’re on the brink of a revolution. One where we find our joy and look after the host that provides it. Our happiness is affected by our surroundings – our environment and our socio-political state of being. If we take the time to mend our surroundings, to choose the right coffee brands, we’ll rediscover new lasting happiness. Sign up for the happiness movement and start all that important rewiring.
Written by Emma Dittmer