Through the lens of coronavirus an intriguing new question becomes visible: can a government experience wellbeing?

What’s the difference between happiness and wellbeing?

In this strange time of tight social and physical restrictions and fear of Covid-19 infection, we have perhaps become more conscious of the crucial importance to our sense of wellbeing of social connectedness, creativity, and contact with the natural world than we have ever been.  Even if we ourselves have so far been fortunate enough not to be directly impacted by bereavement, loss of livelihood, stressful frontline work, or some other major harm inflicted by the coronavirus crisis, we may not describe ourselves as happy at the moment; but absence of happiness doesn’t mean that we may not still be experiencing a reasonably high level of wellbeing.

The terms ‘happiness’ and ‘wellbeing’ are often used interchangeably. An example is found in the title of the latest book by Richard Layard, economist and one-time government ‘happiness tsar’, Can we be Happier: Evidence and Ethics, which is actually about much bigger questions than personal feelings.One reason for the equivalence of the expressions in everyday parlance is that wellbeing arises largely out of the experience of predominantly positive emotions, for which happiness is a generic term.  Another might be to do with the awkward lack of an adjective to describe the effect of a sense of wellbeing, in the way that happy denotes the experiential state happiness.  But happiness is a feeling that comes and goes, while wellbeing is a more continuous state.  Having a high level of wellbeing does not exclude the experience of unhappiness; rather, it is likely to aid the healthy management of difficult emotions so that they don’t become overwhelming.  Perhaps the current constraints on our lives prise open the distinction between the two notions and help us to appreciate the difference.

Personal wellbeing or thriving is about much more than simply feeling good; crucially, it is also about functioning well.  ‘Functioning’ is both an inward and an outward-facing matter: it encompasses both how we manage our own personal life and inner being, and how we interact with the external world.  The functional aspect is hugely important, yet discourse on wellbeing tends to overlook this in favour of a focus on the feel-good aspect.  In our individualistic culture, out of which wellbeing research and interest developed in the first place, such discourse is inclined to adopt and promote an implicitly self-centred perspective.  

But the significance of personal wellbeing, even in an individualistic society, is much more far-reaching. Why? because, we are all socially connected in the countless ways that constitute society, and ‘happier’ people have been found to exhibit a range of characteristics which are of clear benefit to society as well as to themselves.  That is, people with higher wellbeing have been found to be more realistic; better able to attend to relevant information, including the negative or threatening; to have better self-regulation; and to be more co-operative and ‘other-centred’.  Such individuals also show patterns of thought which are flexible, integrative and open to the bigger picture

In this light, the potential benefit of high levels of wellbeing among the population during the Covid-19 pandemic is clear in terms of its implications for attitudes and behaviours, not only with regard to individuals themselves but also for society as a whole.  It suggests that people with this advantage are more likely to act responsibly and rationally.  It also points clearly to the social gain to be had in the normal course of life by serious political and economic investment in support for the conditions that generate and sustain personal wellbeing, factors I explore in Happier People Healthier Planet.

From the personal to the political

The characterisation of the thinking patterns and outlooks of those with a high level of wellbeing has of course been derived from surveys of individuals. By extension, a whole society would be considered to have a high level of wellbeing, ie, thriving, if its members all felt physically and psychologically secure in every sense; and rates of crime, murder, suicide, domestic violence, child abuse, and other forms of exploitation; and obesity and addiction were low; while levels of trust, respect, employment, and cultural, social and other forms of active engagement, were high. 

Now consider governments. In light of what is known about the impact of wellbeing on thinking, the sluggish, even negligent, early response of the UK government to the coronavirus pandemic raises a serious question as to whether a government, as an entity, can be said to be capable of experiencing – and reflecting – a particular level of wellbeing.   The UK government was patently resistant to taking on board the information coming first from China and then from Italy with regard to the infectiousness of the covid-19 virus, its lethal outcome for significant numbers of those infected, and the measures necessary to halt its spread and protect health workers and other frontline staff who are dealing with it. 

Further emerging information about government preparation for the crisis only reinforces this question.  Its complacency was condemned by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in an article in The Guardian which reported that the government and their scientific and medical advisors ignored for weeks on end the warnings of Chinese scientists who had rapidly and rigorously worked to draw lessons from the Chinese experience. Its thinking thus appears demonstrably to have lacked realism, openness or attention to relevant, threatening information.  

Perhaps the tenor of the government’s approach had already been set by the Prime Minister in a speech he delivered on 3rd February, when the virus had begun to spread and there were nearly 20,000 confirmed cases around the world, In his speech on ‘Unleashing Britain’s Potential’, Boris Johnson, supposedly humbly, assumed for the UK the role in the world of Superman, saying, “when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.  And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.” .  This message manifests the absence of another characteristic of the thinking patterns that come with high wellbeing:  it lacks conceptual flexibility in its refusal to consider the possibility that health measures might need, in the pandemic scenario, to be given precedence over trade, still wedded as it is to the government’s ideological commitment to profit before all else. 

A further influence of wellbeing, that of a willingness to co-operate, was also absent when the government seemingly failed to participate in a collaborative European attempt to secure bulk orders of crucial personal protective kit for NHS staff .  At the time of writing it is unclear whether this disastrous malfunction was due to a deliberate political decision or administrative incompetence.

It is somehow hard to get hold of the idea that an institution, a body of people which identifies and acts according to a particular purpose or responsibility, could be considered to experience a particular level of wellbeing, a concept which has been almost exclusively applied to the individual.  But the shockingly poor functioning of the British government at such a critical time appears to raise the possibility that this intriguing question has some validity.  If, indeed, it does, this raises further tricky questions about the interaction between collective wellbeing and the personal thriving of the individuals who constitute that institution.  A highly relevant element here would seem to be the values expressed by the group: there is much research evidence to suggest that individuals with materialistic values, ie, who first and foremost value wealth and what it can buy, experience lower subjective wellbeing than those with non-materialistic values, who prioritise instead that which is of intrinsic worth, such as learning, trustworthiness and beauty. 

If the question regarding the capacity of government to experience wellbeing is valid, then how the apparent answer might be addressed, when the level of wellbeing is low, poses a large and complex challenge, and a significant one.  The prospect for societies of rule by governments with the functional attributes of a high level of wellbeing would be something to look forward to indeed.

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We need a new common consciousness of what’s necessary and possible to curb climate change

CUSP Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity                                   25th November 2018               Guest blog by Teresa Belton

Cultural resistance to the need for a fundamental, urgent, unprecedented rethink of the way we conduct life in order to limit temperature rise is continuously fed by the apparently affirmative but actually misleading words of charismatic thinkers such as Rutger Bregman and Steven Pinker, Teresa Belton finds. What we need instead are fresh holistic narratives of contented material sufficiency and personal and social enrichment —to create the critical mass for a new common consciousness, and to protect the world from catastrophic ecosystem destruction. (This article is an edited version of a piece first published in The Ecologist on 5 November 2018.)

Political and social consciousness of the looming threat and the measures necessary to limit rising temperatures is still largely unengaged. In the UK one need look no further than the government decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport, the continued subsidies given to fossil fuel companies, the reduction in incentives to install solar panels, and the slackening of planning regulations to allow fracking applications free passage. And at the household level, sales of consumer goods and use of energy continue unabated, as though they’re no threat to tomorrow. Popular discourse is lacking in sound or alternative messages. Two recent books by ‘believers’ in anthropogenic climate change offer clues as to why public attitudes are generally so apathetic.

Partial views

One is Utopia for Realists and how we can get there by Rutger Bregman. The other is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Both present positive propositions on other topics with verve, and make thoroughly worthwhile reading. But each communicates a woefully inadequate stance towards climate change.

Bregman’s focus is the eradication of poverty and inequality. He makes a compelling case for the introduction of a universal basic income and other major changes, such as a fifteen-hour working week, and taxation on capital instead of labour. He contends, too, that measuring social welfare and a higher quality of life requires better metrics than GDP.

So far so good. But, the most fundamental needs for welfare and a decent quality of life are secure shelter, food, water, and access to health care; climate change imperils them all. If we don’t succeed in halting the rise in global temperatures very soon, we can expect a dramatic escalation in death, injury and deprivation of enjoyable life, as homes are destroyed, harvests fail, diseases spread, people fight for resources, and uncertainty and anxiety about the future become endemic.

So what does Bregman have to say about climate change? He suggests that working less is the solution—to “stress, climate change, accidents, unemployment, emancipation of women, aging population and inequality”. In cataloguing climate change together with these other problems he implies that it is qualitatively and quantitatively on a par with them. But climate change is in a league of its own.

Climate change is the wickedest of wicked problems, its causes intricately embedded in government policies, business practices and individual behaviours. Moreover, the ecological effects of CO2 are cumulative; they will not cease or ease from one day or year to the next in response to a particular change of policy, as other problems might. Bregman’s suggestion that climate change can be dealt with by a single social change, such as a shorter working week, misrepresents the gravity of the situation to an irresponsible degree. His suggestion that utopia is possible is similarly a delusion when rich biodiversity and the dependability of nature are rapidly dwindling.

Pinker lets us down in different ways. The concern of his book is the restatement for contemporary times of the Enlightenment principles of reason, science, humanism and progress. Reinvigorating them, he emphasises, must be done collectively through systems and institutions: democratic government, international organisations, laws, norms and markets. He does confront the potential of climate change to wreak damage of catastrophic dimensions, but is hopeful that this point will not be reached. His hope is based on the observations that life has improved vastly in numerous respects in recent decades, thanks to Enlightenment thinking; that wealth is rapidly increasing around the world, and as countries become richer they become more inclined to protect the environment. He supposes that the forces pushing such progress along will remain in place. Pinker is convinced that rationality and technology can pull us back from the brink. But he does acknowledge that there is no guarantee that the necessary transformations to technology and politics will be in place in time.

So why is Pinker’s stance on climate change inadequate? One reason is that his heavy emphasis on technology leads him to address only the supply side of the energy issue, asserting that, “the enlightened response to climate change is to figure out how to get the most energy with the least emission of greenhouse gases”. This we must certainly do. But the demand side must be tackled too. Another failing lies in his exclusive focus on grand principles and structures. Such little regard as he pays the individual is sneering, labelling recycling, reducing food miles and unplugging chargers as pointless displays, sacrifice, distraction. Yet the IPCC have long advised that behaviour change must complement technological innovation if we are to keep global temperatures to liveable limits.

Personal responsibility

Calculation of personal carbon footprints indeed reveals how all of us in the developed world are individually contributing to global warming. According to the World Bank, US residents in 2014 were each responsible on average for emissions of 16.5 tonnes, compared with the UK average of 6.5 (another source puts this at 10), and the Swedish average of 4.5. The discrepancies even between rich countries show that there is much scope for reduction of personal emissions. Plenty of information on how to reduce the energy consumption involved in meeting everyday needs is available in books like Chris Goodall’s How to Live a Low Carbon Life and Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad are Bananas? For the sake of ecological health and social justice we need to aim for reduction of carbon emissions in the developed world and an equitable allowance across the world, a process that has been termed ‘contraction and convergence’.

Blinkered perceptions

Pinker repeatedly appeals to the need for reason, yet he is not immune from the human weakness for cognitive bias which, he points out, undermines rationality. It leads to selection and omission of evidence to suit one’s case, as he does again in his attempt to explain why Americans are exceptions to the general pattern that, the richer a country grows, the happier its people become. In 2015 the US had the third highest average income yet was thirteenth in the ranking of countries’ happiness. This, he argues, is because more education increases anxiety and a sense of responsibility which detract from happiness.

But it simply does not ring true that Americans’ happiness is compromised significantly more than that of the population of any other rich nation by awareness of problems. Consumer culture is rampant in the US, and a far more likely explanation for the less-than-expected US happiness score is the ultimately unsatisfying nature of consumerism. People whose values are centred on wealth and possessions are likely to suffer from poorer wellbeing and self-esteem, and higher anxiety, depression and insecurity, as American social scientist Tim Kasser has explained in his book The High Price of Materialism. The New Economics Foundation in the UK has constructed the Happy Planet Index which creates an aggregate score for wellbeing, life expectancy and environmental footprint for about one hundred and forty countries. In sharp contrast to the experience of the US, Costa Rica, whose average per capita carbon emissions in 2014 were a mere 1.6 tonnes, came top of the HPI league for happiness in 2009, 2012 and 2016.

Bregman and Pinker are so narrowly focused on their own preoccupations that their views of the necessary responses to climate change are badly blinkered. Bregman’s advocacy of approaches to poverty and inequality is well grounded, but, in the face of climate change, his assertion that leisure will be the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century, shows that his claim to be a realist is hollow in the context of the bigger picture. Pinker’s fervent confidence in the continuation of the arc of human betterment leaves his mind closed to the possibility of the critical insight that it is carrying us beyond the point of viability.

These failings are serious. They contribute to the cultural resistance, prevalent in popular discourse, to the need for a fundamental, urgent, unprecedented rethink of the way we conduct life. Public intellectuals and social influencers who write and speak of climate change have a vital role to play in providing sound information, and inspiring their readers, listeners and viewers to do what needs to be done to secure a liveable future. Prominent figures whose enthusiastic endorsements of books amplify the messages contained in them also bear some responsibility.

Fresh, holistic frameworks

We need public discourse which spreads an inventive vision of how things can be better. Tinkering with the existing order is no longer enough. Focused mechanisms that are valuable in themselves, such as a universal basic income, must be integrated into an all-encompassing restructuring of economic relationships. From this systemic perspective, in his book Prosperity without Growth, Tim Jackson offers a fresh economic blueprint which radically re-construes old concepts. He formulates enterprise as service, work as participation, investment as commitment, and money as a social good. Kate Raworth provides another visionary framework. Her concept of the ‘doughnut economy’ delineates a safe and just operating space, within which basic human needs can be met and critical natural thresholds avoided. In September this year the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice, made up of business and third sector leaders and academics published its report. The commissioners unanimously agreed that that environmental sustainability should lie at the heart of a new UK economy which should operate within sustainable environmental limits, enforced by law. Meanwhile, CUSP continues to explore the social, political and philosophical nature of sustainable prosperity, as well as the economic. All this innovative thinking needs to permeate mainstream discourse fast.

Inspiring personal narratives

We need to create a fresh individual perspective too, showing that we can live in different, better ways. My study of individuals living in Britain who actively choose to live lives of modest material consumption, elaborated in my book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth, tells a different story from that of the materialistically aspirational norm of social communication. The participants also illustrate how people who are keenly aware of the state of the natural world and of human inequality, and who focus their lives on creativity, connection with and protection of nature, making a positive difference in the world, and other intrinsically rewarding concerns, are actually likely to enjoy higher than average life-satisfaction.

Critical mass

Increasing numbers of ‘modest consumers’, ‘voluntary simplifiers’ and ‘minimalists’, who value time and self-determination over money, are experiencing the enjoyment and fulfilment which flows from lifestyles organised around the non-material riches that life has to offer. For ecological destruction to slow significantly many more need people to cross the ‘threshold of understanding’ that ever increasing possessions, convenience and luxury do not actually deliver deep or lasting happiness, but that ‘non-material assets’ do. We need a critical mass of people with such values. The willing withdrawal of much custom from consumer society, and active support of alternative ways of conducting life that benefit the human and the natural world, would help build the political pressure to instigate the reconstruction of our larger systems from the top down.

Creating a new trajectory

Personal and social wellbeing thrive in a climate of respectful, supportive relationships; belonging and community; responsibility and a sense of agency; active engagement and meaning; personal creativity and shared cultural experiences; green space and wild places; and material sufficiency, for everyone. It is in our power to redirect the trajectory of human development, to build a culture of contented sufficiency, to protect the world from catastrophic ecosystem destruction.

Alongside the extraction of maximum energy with minimum emissions, our challenge is to work out how, individually and collectively, we can get the most out of life using the minimum of material resources. Unlike economic growth, the potential for personal and social growth has no bounds.

The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity is funded by the ESRC. The overall aim of CUSP is to explore the economic, ecological, social and governance dimensions of sustainable prosperity and to make concrete recommendations to government, business and civil society in pursuit of it.

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The many reasons why less is more for the people choosing modest lives

Simply happy

Perhaps a more realistic hope is for a steady rise in the number of people who discover that pursuing non-material riches brings greater happiness than the getting and spending of money. In fact, significant numbers of “voluntary simplifiers” have been choosing and enjoying lives of material simplicity for decades.

In researching my book Happier People Healthier Planet, I investigated the lives and histories of people who had actively chosen modest consumption. They included a wide range of annual incomes, from welfare benefits of £9,000 to the salary of a civil service lawyer. While diverse in character, many had developed habits for growing food and cooking from scratch, choosing UK holidays, buying second-hand, recycling and repairing, walking or taking public transport. And, of course, they had a lack of interest in acquiring “stuff”.

Concern for the environment was predictably the most common motivation. In the words of one woman, Joan, 62:

We have only one planet, it is beautiful and I want the future generations to enjoy it. My assessment (via the Women’s Institute) said I used resources at the rate of 2.4 planets. I am trying to change this.

But the environment was by no means the only motivation. Some people looked at the gross inequalities in the world: “When many people live on less than $1 a day it is immoral to consume just because you can,” said Alison, a 42-year-old mother of three who found pleasure in using skill and ingenuity to make things.

There was also a more general abhorrence of waste, and several people I spoke to had been struck by the greater happiness evident in communities they encountered in materially impoverished parts of the world.

Spend all you want … the world keeps turning. Oleksandr Berezko/Shutterstock

The needs of others was also a common concern among the 94 participants in the study, as was their marked desire to make a difference, with frequent involvement in campaigning and volunteering. Many conveyed a sense of being a tiny part of a huge human and natural world in which they had a part to play. Ruth, 63, who lived with her partner in a hut on a large smallholding, told me:

I believe in personal responsibility, so I must live according to my moral code. Also it’s fun, life is good when I remember I am part of a wonderful whole, I don’t fill the universe.

She relished the wildlife which shared her land.

Books, films and education were influential for others, such as 38-year-old Michael who changed his London lifestyle after hearing Helena Norberg-Hodge, the founder of Local Futures, speaking on localism in Ladakh, India. It prompted Michael to start work with a nearby environmental charity and introduce new leisure activities close to home, including beekeeping, winemaking and a choir.

Personal reasons

For most, it was not formal education but personal experience that shaped their life choices, most often through other people. For many, it came from loving, supportive families with similar values; for others, it sprang from unhappy childhoods, or inspiring friends or acquaintances who showed a different way of being. Bereavement, accident, illness or other personal crises had led quite a number to rethink their priorities.

Half had always lived like this, attributing their choice to personality, or to having been brought up in the war or in a household with a make-do-and-mend outlook. Half had deliberately changed their ways in adulthood, some due to a growing environmental awareness, but others because they discovered that a simpler life made them more contented or less stressed, or that non-materialistic goals were more fulfilling. Overall, the modest consumers’ life satisfaction was unusually high.

It was common to opt for time over money. Clive, a self-employed decorator and floor-sander, for instance, said:

The more creative and resourceful I am the less I have to work. I love it. I am surrounded by interesting people and have time to do the things that give life meaning.

For him, such things were meditation, playing the violin, cooking for friends and helping Palestinian olive farmers with their harvest.

Religion was an occasional influence. Luzie, a Quaker scientist, explained that peace was her motivation as conflicts arise over control of resources. Some put up resistance to the pressures of advertising and fashion. But for many, modesty was a very personal inclination, developed out of direct experience of the joys to be found in all sorts of non-materialistic sources, such as contact with the natural world. Many had first experienced in childhood the enjoyment to be found in the creativity, nature, music, gardening and so on that they now valued so highly.

The variety and abundance of the modest consumers’ everyday lives leaves the dominant focus on money, shopping, luxury, ease and image-enhancement looking futile. Individuals whose lifestyles are shaped instead by improvement of themselves and society and by a close affinity with their environment do seem to offer a more rewarding, more sustainable vision of how life can be lived, and the diversity of their motivations and backgrounds should encourage others to join them.

First published by The Conversation 6th April 2017

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Your serious pursuit of happiness is key to protecting the planet

Michelle McGagh is a bold woman. A personal finance journalist, she has just completed a year in which she vowed to spend no money at all except on essential bills, simple food, and charitable donations. It was a tall order and a tough experience but her perseverance rewarded her with new confidence, skills and insights.

McGagh’s experiment is telling in a society in which each household owes an average of about £2,400 on credit cards. Consumer debt causes great distress to many people, and is closely associated with mental ill health, so any advice on how to reduce spending is welcome.

But debt is not the only serious consequence of consumerism. Our collective demand for energy, water, land, meat, palm oil, timber, and much else besides is rapidly and irreversibly depleting and polluting the resources and eco-systems on which everyone depends. Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film Before the Flood brings this vividly into focus.

Positive spending

Spending per se, though, does not necessarily result in material consumption. One could spend a fortune on the environmentally benign business of buying antiques, planting trees, or commissioning music. But spending money can be used to better benefit the environment if used to buy a train ticket rather than a cheap flight, or better quality, longer-lasting goods, or solar panels.

But generally speaking, spending does translate directly into material consumption. Clothes exemplify prevailing attitudes and behaviours. The average UK household spends about £1,700 a year on clothes. About 30% of these garments remains in wardrobes unworn and an estimated £140m worth are sent to landfill every year.

Such casual consumption and waste creation is highly problematic, given the research that suggests three of the nine planetary boundaries essential for avoiding unacceptable environmental change have already been crossed. It’s time to recognise that every manufactured item or service we buy is at several environmental costs. As well as asking ourselves whether we can afford a particular purchase or experience, we also need to ask whether the Earth can really afford to provide it?

Climate change is the greatest threat we face. It’s reckoned that the world can absorb 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per person each year, but the average Briton currently emits around 15 tonnes (compared with 20 tonnes for the average American and 1.5 in India). The affluent of the world urgently need to curb personal consumption if the global temperature is to be kept to a liveable limit.

Money is not happiness

The prospect of changing our buying habits and expectations may be uninviting, but it helps to remember that personal well-being is not about material wealth (once basic needs are met). Powerful evidence can be found in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. The HPI logs measures of life-expectancy, well-being and ecological footprint for 89 nations, and produces an overall score for each country.

Costa Rica comes out top. Although its GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European countries and North America, and its per capita ecological footprint is just one third of the size of the USA’s, people living in Costa Rica enjoy higher well-being than the residents of many rich nations, and live longer than people in the US. American research suggests that there is no increase in well-being with an income above US$75,000.

We may know deep down that you can’t buy happiness but this intuition often gets lost under the many pressures to consume. A much happier future can be ours, though, if we concentrate on cultivating non-material assets such as good relationships, appreciating what we’ve got, a sense of meaning, and new skills, instead of on making and spending money.

About time

Standard of living has much less bearing on happiness than the attitudes, values and expectations we bring to the way we live. I learnt this repeatedly from the participants in a study I undertook of people who actively choose material modesty, while writing my book Happier People Healthier Planet. They were a diverse collection of 94 individuals aged 18 to 83. There were three whose finances were at subsistence level, two who could be described as “well-heeled”, and everything else in-between. Critically, they viewed time as more valuable than money. This often shaped their working lives and level of income. It was important to them to be independent, useful and responsible.

But these people did not consider their choices as self-denial. Their non-essential expenditure went on cultural events, books and CDs, alcohol and eating out with friends or inviting them round for home-cooked meals. They spent their time on being creative, community, volunteering, meditation, gardening, contact with nature – just the kinds of enrichment which research finds generates well-being. Indeed, the “modest consumers’” satisfaction with their lives was unusually high. Their stories raise pertinent questions.

Essential for well-being are a warm dry home, decent food and reasonable income. It’s shameful that the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy, sees increasing numbers going without, and that national wealth depends partly on worker exploitation. The global economic system, fixated on growth and profit, and resulting in environmental destruction, is deeply flawed.

Radically different frameworks exist, based on real human needs and environmental limits. One is set out by economist Tim Jackson in his just republished book Prosperity without Growth, and the new Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity is developing such thinking.

It’s time to get real. The Earth’s environmental limits are the ultimate bottom line. Slowing the rapid trend towards disastrous higher temperatures demands economic transformation. This will be complex to achieve, but the guiding principle is simple: life offers rich possibilities far more satisfying than constant consumption. All of us who have more than enough, need to learn to become happily modest consumers.


First published by The Conversation 9th December 2016



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3. Habits that Cultivate Happiness are Kind to the Earth: the reciprocal relationship between personal wellbeing and environmental sustainability

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

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2. Capitalism vs Climate = Mindless Consumption vs Real Wellbeing

Naomi Klein is right in looking to capitalism, the slave-master of paid-up members of consumer society, to identify the true culprit of climate change and environmental decline. But capitalism, and the hugely excessive consumption of material goods on which it depends for fulfilling its primary motive of maximising profit just for the sake of maximising profit, has taken on the monstrous proportions and almost ubiquitous reach that it has because it taps into and exploits a common human inclination. This is our tendency to be attracted to material possessions, to comfort, convenience and the hollow social status accorded to wealth and possessions. Even among the still tiny proportion of people who recognise the direct relationship between their own personal purchasing choices and global ecological destruction and therefore consciously try and avoid over-consumption, there are those who feel the attraction of acquisition, as I found when I made a study of people happily living lifestyles of modest material consumption.While capitalism can surely be regarded as the fundamental cause of climate change, the perpetuation of capitalism requires us all to play its game. We do have the option of dropping the ball and walking away. The happily modest consumers in my study, like all voluntary simplifiers, provide plentiful evidence that we need not buy into lifestyles of mindless consumption, that are so much the norm or common aspiration, in order to live happily; indeed cultivating the non-material possibilities of life generally results in higher wellbeing. For the sake of the climate and of personal wellbeing, now is the time for human beings en masse to turn to more satisfying, less damaging ways of living.We need to learn to resist the undoubtedly powerful pull on us of things that we don’t actually need in order to live satisfying lives. This will be a great deal easier if we come fully to realise the greater degree of true and lasting wellbeing to be gained from the non-material assets of good relationships, a sense of belonging, of meaning and purpose, of creativity, of making a contribution, and of time spent in natural surroundings, than from shopping or an overflowing bank balance.

Hopefully there is a growing recognition that the kick we get as we take possession of yet one more pair of shoes, or a DVD that we may watch only once, or a shiny replacement for the still working but tired-looking gadget, is but short-lived. The satisfaction of handing over cash or completing an online card payment in return for the promise of ownership of what is likely to be the product of a complex and ecologically damaging process of extraction, manufacture, packaging and transportation is fleeting; the thrill of actual possession usually fades quickly as the new object of desire is absorbed into our stock of belongings.  Neither can the sum of all those feelings of gratification at acquisition begin to compare in value with the accumulated moments of joy at the smiles given to or received from friends or strangers, of hand-holding or hugs with children or grand-parents, or a song sung; nor with the satisfaction felt at a problem solved, a worthwhile task accomplished, a skill mastered, a nesting bird sighted, or the other innumerable potential moments of emotional nourishment to be found in everyday life. While our collective pursuit of yet more instants of acquisition, multiplied inordinately, is destroying the planet with gathering speed, it is the moments of non-material fulfillment that accumulate and aggregate to generate personal wellbeing.

First published on the Huffington Post 13th November 2014

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1. Relating personal wellbeing to environmental sustainability – how to shape a nutshell?

When I chose Happier People Healthier Planet as the main title for my book I wondered whether there should be a punctuation mark in the middle. I decided against the insertion of a comma or a colon between the two halves, as I didn’t want subtly to convey the sense that creating a healthier planet should be the sole reason for enhancing happiness; happiness is, after all, a worthwhile and legitimate pursuit in its own right – as is recognised in the US Declaration of Independence. The subtitle gave me much more pause for thought, however. I needed succinctly to communicate the core proposition of the book, that optimising genuine personal wellbeing is key to achieving the essential changes in prevalent, environmentally-damaging values and behaviours; for only by doing so will we be able to reduce the scale of depletion and pollution sufficiently to enable the Earth’s systems to continue to support human life and that of countless other species. I decided to do a little crowd-sourcing of opinions in order to try and generate a more detached perspective, and sought the views of a number of people who have contributed to the development of the book. I gave them some alternative words and phrases and asked them to tell me which they favoured. How Cultivating Wellbeing will Help us to Save the Earth; How Putting Wellbeing First could Help us Rescue the Earth; How Cultivating Wellbeing would Help us Protect the Earth. The choices to be made were thus between:

  • cultivating wellbeing / putting wellbeing first
  • can /will /would help
  • save the Earth / rescue the Earth /protect the Earth

This exercise was helpful – two people rightly pointed out that the Earth will carry on regardless, it’s life on Earth we have to worry about. However, few opinions out of the twenty-six were in complete agreement on the best combination. This was also helpful as the variety of likes and reasoning made me think more deeply about what I really wished to communicate and which words would work best to do so. More people liked “save” than “rescue”, but some found “save” hackneyed; “protect” was least popular. Some did not think “help” should be used at all, but I remained certain that “help” had to figure in the title as technological innovation clearly also has a crucial role to play in reducing the environmental toll of human activities. Views varied, too, on the best form of the verb. Some favoured the conditional “could” or “would”; but more advocated the present, active form of “can” or “will”. As for the options for the first part of the phrase, “cultivating wellbeing” was slightly more popular than “putting wellbeing first”. While I personally love the idea of cultivation, it is perfectly possible that some people would argue that we already do cultivate wellbeing – but they haven’t read the perspective in the book! Much more importantly, my whole point is that attending to all the many and complex sources of genuine wellbeing should be the principal purpose and rationale of policy. This, rather than the manufacture of financial profit for its own sake, which is the current prime motivator, should drive policy decisions. Wealth-creation of a real and enduring kind is about the nurture and maintenance of individual and social wellbeing. Of course money, both private and public, is necessary, indeed essential, in the service of health and lasting happiness, both in the present and for the future; but pursuing money for its own sake, chasing and accumulating sums much greater than can be deployed to this end, is highly corrosive of personal, social, institutional and political life – as well as the environment. I wanted the subtitle of the book to encapsulate this recognition. I agreed in principle with the small “crowd” I consulted that an active, present verb would be preferable to a conditional one. And it is true on an individual level that putting wellbeing first does benefit the environment, on an individual scale. Their responses made me realise that they seemed to be considering the question from an individual point of view, whereas what I wished to emphasise in particular was the collective, societal priority we should be giving to wellbeing. When public policy is determined pre-eminently by the joint demands of maximising private profit and minimising public expenditure, it is clear that there is scant understanding in government of the nature of and fundamental importance of wellbeing or of the conditions required for its nurture and maintenance. Existing public policies and practices tend to reduce the capacity of many individuals for fostering their own and others’ wellbeing, and severely limit the potential activity of supportive organisations. In the light of all of this, “putting wellbeing first would help”, although conditional, seemed to me to be a more definite and positive and less uncertain statement than “could” or “can” help. What, exactly, would be helped by prioritising wellbeing? It clearly had to be life on Earth, rather than the Earth itself. Second-verb-wise, “save” is a little clichéd by now; “rescue”, while heroic, might perhaps suggest a one-off endeavour to be accomplished and left behind – while what is needed is a permanent change of mindset and behaviour; and protect sounds somewhat soft and defensive. While all these approaches are perfectly valid, I decided in the end to go for a different word altogether: sustain. For this carries a sense of proactively nourishing, and of ongoing activity. Thus, having been born, the book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth, was named.

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