Research tells us that non-materialistic people are more satisfied with their lives than materialistically-orientated individuals. And it is clear that those who put a high value on material consumption, or who look primarily to material things for emotional consolation or expression of identity or social status will take a heavier toll on the environment than those who don’t.
There are other, more subtle reasons, too, why happier people are likely to do less ecological harm in the course of everyday life than the less satisfied. One aspect of this relationship is that those who enjoy a high level of wellbeing have been found to be better able to see the big picture: they will therefore be more likely to be able to put their own behaviour and choices and the effects of these into a wider social and environmental context; happier people also have a better grasp of reality, the negative as well as the positive; they are better at creative problem-solving and at self-control and emotional self-regulation; and are more co-operative, pro-social, open-minded, charitable and autonomous. All these tendencies add up to the likelihood of a greater inclination towards ethical decisions of all kinds.
Looking at the relationship between personal wellbeing and environmental sustainability from a third perspective, one can see the reciprocity in another light. Because those aspects of experience which most benefit wellbeing have little or nothing to do with material consumption it seems logical to suggest that those people with relatively high wellbeing are likely to live in ways that prioritise the non-material. I will explain.
The most important underpinning of wellbeing is having dependable, responsive, supportive, nourishing relationships. Good relationships, contrary to many people’s conscious or unconscious view, do not rely on the (possibly lavish) expenditure of money in order to convey or illicit regard or affection, but on the willingness and ability to listen, to empathise, to be attuned and to recognise boundaries, as well as qualities such as humour, forbearance, co-operativeness, patience, and so on. People with healthy, mutually beneficial relationships are likely to spend time and thought on each other rather than money.
Another important contributor to feeling good and functioning well is the exercise of one’s creativity and the enjoyment of the creativity of others. Many forms of creativity require little in the way of raw materials or energy, or none at all. One has only to think of writing, singing, dancing, dramatic improvisation, collage, mime, papier mache, drumming, weaving. Exploring one’s creativity, whatever form it might take, provides unlimited potential for finding satisfaction, experiencing flow, and developing practical skills and those other precious non-material assets of purpose and identity. Creativity can help us to lose ourselves and our egos on the one hand, or to experience the exhilaration of collaborative endeavour on the other. And a capacity for thinking imaginatively is crucial to the shaping of better ways of living that both meet human needs and protect the environment.
Similarly, time spent in natural surroundings has been shown beyond doubt to exert a major benefit on individual wellbeing and functioning. This is sufficient reason in itself to promote opportunities for children and adults to spend time out of doors, in woods, hills and meadows, and on beaches, up mountains and by rivers and lakes. But not only would the enjoyment of such places by more people boost general emotional health, and reverse the development of the alarming condition of alienation from the natural world known as “nature deficit disorder”, it would also help to cultivate more individuals’ love of the natural world. This in itself would help to promote environmental sustainability, for a personal relationship with and affection for nature is an essential complement to intellectual knowledge in the cause of arresting the current destruction of irreplaceable natural habitats, eco-systems and landscapes. Only first-hand experience of the relaxation, wonder and inspiration to be gained from time spent in natural surroundings can engender the kind of love and respect that is required if we are to act in ways that will rescue the integrity of global ecology.
It is the deliberate and joyful engagement in creativity and learning, loss of self in nature and art, and pursuit of a sense of belonging, meaning, and contributing to the good of others, that has the potential power to trump the mindless pursuit of economic growth of material wealth and acquisition that is now discredited as a proxy for wellbeing.
It is high time that human beings recognised that on the one hand material overconsumption is destroying the planet yet, on the other, consuming much more than we need does not give us the lasting fulfilment to be gained from many non-material pursuits. Those many of us who consume more than our sustainable share, or aspire to live such a life-style, can learn how to get more out of life while consuming more modestly; there are plenty of people who point the way. I made a study of some of them for my new book Happier People Healthier Planet. Many of the people I researched took particular delight in their friendships, in voluntary work, in creative activities of many kinds, and in feeling themselves to be a tiny part of a huge human and natural world, yet able to make some positive difference. Many actively preferred the simple life of few possessions for its lesser stressfulness.
As long as we have secure shelter, food, warmth and water, greater wellbeing goes hand-in-hand, it seems, with a non-material focus and a refusal to be possessed by material possessions.
Guest blog first published by Network of Wellbeing 4th December 2014