Well-being encompasses our physical and mental health and the term is often interchanged with happiness or flourishing within positive psychology. People with higher levels of well-being experience more positive than negative emotions, satisfaction with their lives and a sense of meaning.
There are many things we have in common with other people that help build personal well-being – these include aspects of life such as positive relationships with others, activities we enjoy, objects we own and success in our jobs. Of course, the minute detail of what creates these factors is unique to our situation and personalities.
Sustainable well-being could refer to maintaining this desired level of happiness within an individual; however, this blog post presents sustainable well-being as a bigger picture and suggests that changes to our thoughts and actions could bring more lasting well-being for both ourselves and others.
The dominant modern attitude towards well-being has a heavy focus on the needs and wants of the individual. What gives us pleasure and makes us happy drives our thoughts and actions. It’s questionable whether we place enough consideration on how the events that create our personal well-being impact on others or, indeed, what we can do to actively enhance other people’s wellbeing.
While the quotes above are open to interpretation – guided by cultural values and perceived societal needs – they embody the concept of sustainable well-being. This aims to bring together the fields of sustainability and well-being; it goes beyond the individual – viewing our personal well-being as inclusive of and interdependent with the well-being of others and the wider environment. This is an important point to consider when many of us go into autopilot each day, making choices driven by personal pleasure and convenience.
The need for sustainable well-being is evident when we turn on the news/read a paper. We’re reminded that there is increased global concern regarding numerous issues – currently climate change, plastic pollution and the mass movement of displaced, impoverished people dominate the headlines. For those of us not in the midst of it, it’s easy to switch off and get back to our lives. Sustainable well-being asks us to stand up and engage –to consciously make changes to our behaviour so that our lifestyles are more environmentally sustainable, and our notions of well-being are more inclusive.
Active change can begin with small everyday actions. A leading researcher in this field, O’Brien (2008, 2012), uses two examples that really stuck with me – the first is a cup of coffee, a simple pleasure many of us enjoy multiple times a day. Sustainable happiness asks us to continue enjoying our coffee but also to consider whether the people that picked it got a fair wage and if it was grown with respect for the environment. We can make the active decision to spend our money on a brand that does make these conscious efforts. The second example discusses commuting patterns, with research suggesting those who actively commute (walk, cycle) report higher levels of positive emotions than those who use cars or public transport. Their behaviour both increases their well-being and is environmentally sustainable.
These examples from O’Brien give us a concrete view of what a starting point for sustainable well-being can look like in practice. We’re not being asked to ignore our personal well-being, rather we’re encouraged to reframe what creates this and to consider the impact of our choices on other living beings and the wider environment.
The concept of sustainable well-being will take time to become established in our minds and our actions. It’s not a change that will happen quickly, but it is a change that needs to begin. As seen above, we can start to actively engage by making small, deliberate changes to our thoughts and behaviour.
With time, these could lead to a more sustainable lifestyle, an inclusive approach to well-being and an increased awareness of our interconnectedness with the wider world.
Thanks for reading!
Abdallah, S., Michaelson, J., Shah, S., Stoll, L., & Marks, N. (2012). The Happy Planet Index—2012 report: A Global index of sustainable well-being. London: nef (the new economics foundation).
O’Brien, C. (2008). Sustainable Happiness: How Happiness Studies Can Contribute to a More Sustainable Future Canadian Psychology, 49, 289-295
O’Brien, C. (2012). Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being: Future Directions for Positive Psychology Psychology, 3, 1196-1201