Happier People, Healthier Planet
Why putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth.
It was a beautiful day and I was enjoying riding my bike along a quiet cycle track, with trees and hedges on either side and birds singing.
Suddenly, a thought came to me: most of the things that really make us feel good are things that don’t harm the environment — like cycling, chatting with friends, gardening, getting lost in a book, singing, helping a local charity, sharing a joke.
What an interesting idea to explore, I thought.
The result, was Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth. And writing it turned into a fascinating journey of discovery of unexpected connections between all sorts of diverse issues.
The more I read about wellbeing research — and also about climate change and other environmental threats — the more I saw a paradox. We are destroying the Earth’s ecological systems with our insatiable demand for goods and energy, even though having more and more stuff doesn’t really make us happy.
On one hand it was alarming to realise that almost every product we purchase, however small, contributes to environmental destruction. But on the other it was really heartening to learn how much the foundations of true wellbeing lie in things that can’t be bought — like good relationships, learning skills, being creative, feeling part of a community, thinking about the needs of others, and spending time in natural surroundings.
If this was understood more widely and used as the guiding principle of our personal lives and government policies, it could clearly offer us the route away from the abyss of environmental destruction — as well as the means to create a happier world.
It’s true that buying new possessions does give us a pleasurable buzz — but that buzz soon passes. The satisfaction from buying stuff doesn’t last nearly as long, or mean nearly as much, as the satisfaction of a new friendship made, a picture painted or a shelf put up.
So the core message of Happier People Healthier Planet is that we urgently need to turn our attention away from buying and selling and private profit, towards developing the human qualities, personal skills and social conditions that make for deep-down, long-lasting enjoyment and satisfaction in life.
This message sounds simple, but the relationship between personal wellbeing and environmental sustainability is actually quite complex.
For example, happier people will, on the whole, be content to consume less. Why? Because what motivates much of our excess consumption is the desire to boost our image in the eyes of others. So huge quantities of clothes, household enhancements, gadgets, cosmetics and so on constantly fly off the shelves. This buying behaviour is much less likely by individuals who are comfortable with themselves as they are — and self-acceptance is a vital aspect of wellbeing.
Another common motivation for shopping is trying to mend or overcome unhappiness. Who knows how many pairs of shoes, glossy magazines, continental weekend breaks, or other “treats” are purchased as retail therapy for unhappy people trying to get away from uncomfortable emotions.
Yet a walk in the park or on the beach, putting on a CD and dancing wildly, or writing a diary might very well lift the spirits just as effectively — and at virtually no cost to the environment.
There are also many positive reasons why greater wellbeing is likely to help people to live more eco-friendly lives: happier people have been found to be more realistic and have greater self-control, so happiness gives some protection from impulse buying.
And experiencing mostly positive emotions, another important element of wellbeing, enables us to see the bigger picture, while negative emotions tend to narrow our attention. Thus being happy in ourselves makes it easier for us to take on board the bigger, more distant implications of our personal behaviours — such as how our decisions to drive, fly, take the bus or train, or walk, will impact on the wider environment.
While researching my book I conducted a study of people who actively choose to live lives of relative material modesty. These people show how fulfilment can often arrive unsought, simply from pursuing a range of non-materialistic concerns.
Their stories and insights illustrate just how much connecting with people and with nature, active engagement, living mindfully and purposefully, being physically active and appreciating and enjoying small details really are the very stuff of happiness.
Although it wasn’t necessarily easy, these “modest consumers” also had the satisfaction of knowing that they were making responsible choices.
One of them explained to me why he lived the way he did:
“ Because ‘more’ isn’t better. Because I hate waste and greed, and [possessions] are weighty and unsatisfying while nature is free, generous, delightful and uplifting. Because consuming only what I find I need reduces my carbon footprint and allows me to feel good about myself and my place in this environment “.
You can learn more about Teresa’s book at: www.happierpeoplehealthierplanet.com