By fundamentally changing our cultural values we can create societies that collaborate for increased wellbeing rather than compete for increased wealth
It is now well recognised that to preserve the global ecosystem we must move away from high consumption lifestyles and find new ways of valuing our world. An exciting outcome of recent research is that this will also make us happier and more fulfilled. Perhaps the most important finding is that by focussing on ‘sustainability double-dividends’ (lifestyle choices which improve both wellbeing and sustainability), we can find a popular route into the future ecological age
1. Living a more local life
The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet
Our life triangle consists of the distance between home, work and where we shop. If that triangle also includes schools and centres for the arts and health we get thriving local communities. Localisation benefits the environment by reducing the amount of travel and transport required to sustain our lives, resulting in fewer resources used and less pollution.
By spending less time travelling on a day-to-day basis, people have more time for their families and leisure pursuits, which in turn, boosts happiness. Other benefits include a resurgence of active communities, greater closeness of people to the natural environment and improved safety. Local food alone can make a huge contribution to the wellbeing of our communities by rebuilding the lost links between people and producers. Fresher, more nutritious food is available and the local economy benefits with small shops, butchers, dairies and bakeries reopening to serve the community.
2. More vibrant healthy communities
Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.
People’s lives in the UK have become more separated and communities have broken down. According to The New Economics Foundation (nef), this is a significant reason for the decline in wellbeing in the UK since the 1950s. Living, working and shopping more locally increases your regular contact with people in your community. This is fundamental to improving wellbeing because human relationships are consistently found to be the most important factor in human happiness.
The local community may also be the best front from which to tackle environmental challenges. Neighbours can come together to grow food and compost, swap and share useful possessions, and organise and share ideas. Working together like this empowers us while boosting wellbeing and community cohesion.
3. Human powered transport
When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
Walking, cycling, skating or scooting instead of car travel can have dual health benefits by providing the physical activity we require and reducing the adverse health effects of motor vehicle transport.
Active transport is more important now than ever before as obesity becomes the UK’s primary health concern. Most adults in England are overweight, one in five is obese, and obese people are more likely to become depressed. In contrast, studies published by The Medical Journal of Australia have shown that compared with inactive people, those who cycle regularly have higher self-esteem and better mental functioning.
The benefits of human-powered transport to society, and in particular to cities, are many. Simply the huge increase in available space that arises from removing cars from cities provides enormous scope to re-imagine urban spaces as well as the obvious benefits of a decline in pollution, congestion and in traffic related casualties. Where there was once 3 lanes of traffic there can now be city farms, sport facilities, skate parks and trees.
4. Connection to the natural world
If you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk; If you want to be happy for three days, get married; If you want to be happy forever, make a garden.
Edward O Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis proposes that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world and a biological need to focus on life and lifelike processes. For many commentators, such as authors Jonathon Porritt and Rory Spowers, it is the separation of human society from nature that is the root cause of both the environmental crisis and the decline in wellbeing associated with modern society.
According to research, individuals that care about biodiversity loss reveal a psychological connection with other living organisms and psychologically benefit from this association. Green people have an appreciation of their place within the great natural scheme of things and tend to feel closeness to other living things and to wild spaces. This can be a source of inspiration and enrichment throughout life.
Paradoxically, our desire to be in nature also has the potential to be environmentally devastating; reversing the urbanisation trends of the modern age would significantly increase our ecological footprint. A solution is to bring more of nature into our habitations. For centuries, gardens and parks have been humanity’s managed way of interacting with nature. Greening of cities both literally and metaphorically can be done by increasing parks, wildlife gardens, trees, roof gardens, living roofs and urban farms (with the dual benefit of reducing food miles).
5. Choice pruning
Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them one’s self?
Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is presumed that a success of the expansion of economies is the vastly increased range of options available to us in terms of what we eat, wear, buy and where we travel. However, this proliferation of choice is actually a mixed blessing. Some choice is good but too much choice paralyses us and makes us anxious.
How can we know if we have made the right choice? Are our peers making better choices? What is the right thing to do? These concerns affect people in different ways according to what they are attempting to choose. For young people it can be careers; for the insecure, an image; for the health conscious, food, and for the extrinsically motivated it is the endless pursuit of status and fashion. This endless range of choice can bring us down.
In contrast, for people switched on to the great environmental challenges making choices becomes far simpler because the choice criteria are dramatically fewer. For food they go local and seasonal, for jobs and money they go ethical. They are less anxious about whether they have made the right choice because their choices fall within a broad context of values, which motivates them to live in a certain way.
Wealthy people with excessive choice might dismiss greens who wear second-hand clothes and cycle to see their friends. However, research published by the New Economics Foundation and a range of other institutions and journals has shown that there is a no longer a correlation between wealth and happiness once people’s basic needs are met. Meanwhile, ‘affluenza’ (a socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the pursuit of more) is increasingly common.
6. Less materialistic
Money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.
Green people tend to be less interested in material things, resulting in a tendency to consume less and use fewer resources. The environmental benefits are clear, but shifting their focus away from material things makes these people happier too.
Once we have all that we need to survive (food, water, shelter etc) additional material things have less and less impact on our wellbeing. The author Robert Lane expresses it like this: “the richer the society and its individuals become, the less purchasable are the goals that bring them happiness.” For example, an American study found that people were happier after spending money on experiences, rather than physical things.
Tim Kasser, in his book The High Price of Materialism, shows how a materialistic orientation toward the world contributes to low self-esteem, depression, antisocial behaviour and even a greater tendency to get headaches, backaches, sore muscles, and sore throats. Meanwhile in the New Economics Foundation’s report Chasing Progress, Tim Jackson demonstrates that the quest for never ending economic growth is leading to unacceptable environmental risks and a failure to guarantee social progress.
A responsible government could shift focus from relentlessly increasing GDP (based on consumption) to encouraging citizens towards activities and ways of life that improve wellbeing. Socialising, sport, creative arts, performance, music, cooking, gardening, hiking all are popular pursuits with minimal ecological footprints.
7. Enjoyable pursuits
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements in life, when all we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
Materialist values lead to extrinsic motivation – doing things in expectation of external rewards (e.g. money or status). The belief that things outside ourselves will make us happy compels us to engage in pursuits that do not fulfil psychological needs. For example we may be prone to work long hours to save for new possessions. As we adapt to our new possession it doesn’t make us happy and we become convinced we need a new one.
In contrast, turning away from striving after wealth and possessions frees us to pursue work for more profound reasons or to have more time and space for creativity and interesting and enjoyable activities. The intentional activities in life we choose include: work, sports, hobbies, community activities and interpersonal relationships. Making time for these pursuits rather than chasing rewards or attempting to avoid failure, is a recipe for happiness.
8. Personal development
In 1943 Abraham Maslow proposed his highly influential theory of a hierarchy of needs, contending that as humans meet basic needs, they seek to satisfy successively higher ones. The lowest levels are occupied by physiological needs with higher levels associated with psychological needs. While our basic needs must be met, our ‘growth needs’ are continually shaping our behaviour. Personal growth creates upward movement through the hierarchy and to have a high quality life, people must have their needs satisfied.
Maslow writes the following of self-actualising people: They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves); they are creative; they are interested in solving problems – frequently those of others – and this is often a key focus in their lives; they feel closeness to other people and generally appreciate life; and they have a system of morality that is fully internalised and independent of external authority.
From these general descriptions we might infer that people who are engaged and active around environmental issues are more likely to have reached the top of the pyramid. They have developed in such a way that they are now turning their attention and creative energies to the overwhelming challenge that a collapsing biosphere presents for our species. These people are intrinsically motivated, which avoids pathological, over-consumptive behaviour. In other words, taking action for others and the planet is a way to add meaning to life and become more fulfilled.
9. Social actualisation
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Wellbeing is of critical importance to society. Happy people are more sociable, generous, creative, active, tolerant, healthy, altruistic, economically productive and long living. Therefore, if social progress is an aspiration, the first port of call should be improving individual wellbeing.
Today’s advanced capitalist societies show declining wellbeing and environmental quality. This is why climate change has been described as an opportunity; to survive we must change everything, beginning with the values that underlie our societies.
The environmental crisis can be overcome, but only through global co-operation and a profound change of values, placing planetary concerns before those of nations or individuals. Global sustainability will require all of humanity’s basic needs to be met and a social design that eases a critical mass of people up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
In the quest to make sustainable societies we may unwittingly enter a new era of peace on Earth and harmony with the natural world in which a majority of humanity is able to self-actualise and find fulfilment. Freed from the constant need to compete in the marketplace, new horizons, yet to be imagined, can be approached by flourishing citizens.
Transpersonal psychology and deep ecology share with Eastern spiritual traditions the belief that the sense of self can expand to identify with all humanity and other aspects of the world beyond the body. In doing so, we transcend conditions of separateness and isolation, which are the source of much misery and angst. Recognising the inherent unity of all existence, we experience subsequent feelings of belonging, oneness and peace.
There are myriad benefits to this transcendent sense of self both for the individual and the environment. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, the founder of deep ecology, said: “care flows naturally if the ‘self’ is widened and deepened so that the protection of free nature is felt as the protection of ourselves.”
Current breakthroughs in physics, the teachings of the world’s great mystics, and environmentalism lead us to the same conclusions. As structures sustained by an influx of matter and energy that starts at the sun and is channelled, through plants, up food chains to us, any separation in time or space between us and the natural world is a projection of the mind, not a scientific observation.
The idea that humans are separate entities in a mechanistic universe is the source of much modern alienation and misery, while personal wellbeing and environmental care are increased by recognising humanity’s place as an integral part of the natural world and indeed the evolving cosmos. The spark of consciousness within us is a part of something far greater then we might have fathomed. We are not compelled to compete in lives that are nasty, brutish and short. The future is ours to co-create. By realising this we can shift from a desire to own and control to a desire to love and nourish.
By fundamentally changing our cultural values we can create societies that collaborate for increased wellbeing rather than compete for increased wealth and in doing so create advanced new societies that are green and happy and in which our achievements are limited only by our imaginations.
Photo credit: © Matt Mellen