As is so common in human history we face a conundrum. We like to think that the economic malaise of the past six years is now behind us and that good times are ahead in all of their glorious hope and pomp. But we also know this is a mirage. Lying in most of us there is a longing for a different way of living, better relations with our neighbours, security of planetary tenure, and the prospect of a world that will still provide nurture for our grandchildren.
In this important volume Teresa Belton provides the necessary analysis of why the “old way” cannot continue and offers the hope of renewal and of betterment for all of us in a timescale which is manageable. She writes with grace and compassion and illuminates her optimism with the heartening experiences of people who are also on a journey of renewal and happy discovery, though not without difficulty. This is a book to be savoured and returned to whenever the going seems to be too tough to handle.
Tim O’Riordan, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia
Teresa Belton, like a number of wise and intelligent people, is deeply concerned about the effects of excessive consumption on the state of the planet. In her outstanding and beautifully written book she argues powerfully for a change in our behaviour and culture. Can this be done? She conducted her own inquiry, interviewing many people who have responded to the challenge of modest consumption. They are, of course, self-selected but they come across as thoroughly decent people who tread lightly upon the earth and who rate highly their own state of wellbeing. Her thoughtful book should be read by all those who care about the planet and worry about what will happen to their grandchildren.
Patrick Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology at the University of Cambridge
Happier People Healthier Planet bravely engages with perhaps the most pressing yet complex issue of our age – the shift in consciousness and associated life-style choices required for humankind to live in a sustainable way with Planet Earth’s faltering ecosystem. This intricate story involves grappling with many prescient, interrelated issues including, amongst others, materialism, economic growth, resilience, ‘nature deficit’, creativity, playfulness and spirituality, as well as working with different levels of analysis, from the geopolitical to the psychodynamic.
Teresa Belton has consulted and marshalled a formidable range of academic and philosophical literature to support her compelling case, as well as interviewing a range of people who have created sustainable yet fulfilling life-styles. Belton has done humanity a great service in providing us with a provocative discussion text which shows how genuine systemic-cultural change can happen without bloody revolution – a book which deserves to grace student reading-lists in environmental studies, economics, sociology, psychology and more, for many years to come.
This is a formidable book of extraordinary range and erudition – altogether a great achievement, offering us a compelling and coherent holistic conspectus for a sustainable human future.
Dr Richard House, C.Psychol., Educational Consultant and Campaigner, formerly Senior Lecturer at the Universities of Roehampton and Winchester, author of Therapy Beyond Modernity (2003) and In, Against and Beyond Therapy (2010).
I’ve never seen a book like this which seeks the positives to be gained from what appears to be a totally negative situation, if only we can re-think our priorities.
Many studies promote environmental consciousness as a matter of our long-term survival; this is the first I have read that directly links the enrichment of our immediate wellbeing to the protection of our planet.
“It is a powerful and valid message to everyone – especially grandparents – who care about the future. It should be on the reading list of every politician: could it ever be debated in our Parliament?” Michael Bassey
“I’m finding your book riveting and would like to buy another copy to lend …. It’s a real page-turner.” Julia Clark
“This is a superb book. Teresa Belton explores the lives of ‘modest consumers’ and she examines the different ways that participants in her research find satisfaction in life. Belton produces a rich seam of evidence from people’s lived experiences which challenges the modern ideology – that wealth and material gain are pathways to happiness. It draws on a wealth of different theories to contextualise the research findings, including positive psychology, creativity, spirituality and climate science. Theories are interwoven with the narratives of modest consumers, which adds extra dynamism to the discussion.” Mick Collins
“I found this a very engaging and readable book, while also demonstrating stringent scholarly credentials. It really made me scrutinise my own lifestyle choices and gave me comfort that I was pursuing a ‘healthier and happier’ course in some respects while also offering inspiring but achievable examples of living differently.” Vanessa Trevelyan
“I’m absolutely devouring Happier People Healthier Planet. I’m 200 pages in and loving it more and more as I go along – it’s engaging as well as convincing. The ability to combine scholarly precision and weight of evidence with clear and beautiful writing is so rare.” Emma Coonan
“While Happier People Healthier Planet isn’t a ‘how to’ guide there are many lessons to be learned from it for those who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Thoroughly researched and well written, Teresa Belton’s book deserves to be read.” Tara Greaves
“The book is an outstanding experience about empathy, values and change.” Jesus Martin, interdisciplinary researcher
“This is not a comfortable book to read. It is, however, essential reading for anyone who is bothered about the progress of our planet, about what we are doing to it by over-exploitation of resources. It is even more essential for anyone who worries, or is even mildly concerned about, the kind of world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren.
A theme running through this clearly written book is that over possession of belongings and property doesn’t lead, as a result, to happiness. Dr Belton emphasises the need for us to become what she terms ‘modest consumers’ and she backs this up with encouraging case histories or life stories of individuals she has interviewed who lead lives which are materially relatively modest but which they experience as rich and fulfilling. They are people who consciously buy fewer goods and use less energy than is the norm in Britain and, instead of focusing on their personal income and expenditure, prioritise enjoying all the non-material pleasures and satisfactions to be had in life, such as creativity, a sense of community, contact with the natural world, and making a positive contribution.
In addition to these there is a mass of factual information about consumption, waste, and lack of wellbeing in our society. References to reports and a substantial bibliography show what a considerable amount of background study as well as primary, qualitative research the author has put in, and the conclusions to each chapter suggest the way forward.
Finally, a thought. All of us need to understand the realities of all this and should get the message to the coming generation. Maybe a slim-line summary of this excellent book could, even should, be in every classroom of the land, and read to children on a daily basis. Otherwise, how will they learn?” Barrie Wood
Times Higher Education 6th-12th November 2014
As someone who has always considered that famous phrase “the pursuit of happiness” to be dangerous nonsense, I came to this book with low expectations. Surely human beings’ insistence on seeking pleasure at any cost has been a disastrous enterprise, running counter to the needs of the planet? Not necessarily, Teresa Belton argues convincingly: translate “happiness” as “well-being”, and we begin to see how a concern for the condition of humanity can complement a concern for the condition of non-human nature.
Overall, Belton offers four basic requirements for sustaining life on Earth: countering “the culture of consumption”, with its attendant waste; making it our business to understand climate change and recognising what we need to do to prevent further damage; systematically addressing the challenge of “ill-being”, which she sees as built into our current way of life; and a restructuring of economics in the light of ecology, so that it attends to the real requirements of our earthly “household”.
It is hard to fault the thoroughness of her analysis – evident, for example, in her outline of what being a “Happily Modest Consumer” would actually involve. Moreover, this is not just a matter of speculation: Belton bases much of her exposition on the actual experience of several individuals from differing classes and backgrounds whom she interviewed for this book. Thus we are encouraged to engage seriously with the implications of changing one’s way of life. These interviewees, identified only by their first names, all have interesting and instructive stories to tell. The common wisdom they have acquired might be summarised by Wordsworth’s famous phrase, “plain living and high thinking”.
At the same time, I became aware that Happier People Healthier Planet is informed by a wealth of theory, and does not rely on reportage alone. Indeed, Belton reminds us early on how important to her has been the examples set by John Ruskin, by E. F. Schumacher and by Herman Daly. I liked in particular the way she spelled out the importance of Daly’s “steady-state economics”, dedicated to the goal of achieving “a more modest ecological impact in a happier society under the full control of its citizens”.
However, Belton’s stress on modest expectations does not blind her to the importance of fostering creativity, play and a capacity for wonder in children and adults alike. How else would we be able to empathise with the green world that sustains us? Action in itself is not the full answer. Belton discourses at some length upon the spiritual dimension of ecology, which might inform our activism, reminding us of the necessity of guiding our “doing” by a sense of “being”.
My only reservation about this excellent handbook of ecologically responsible living is that Belton does not dwell long enough on the problem of overpopulation. According to a recent authoritative report, half of the world’s wildlife has been lost in the past 40 years. It is surely no coincidence that in the same period the number of human beings on the Earth has doubled. If we “do the maths”, we might conclude that the greenest thing anyone can do is not to have children. But putting that argument aside, I would strongly recommend this book to all those who want to ensure that they benefit the world they are privileged to inhabit.
Laurence Coupe, Visiting Professor of English, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Lisa Napoli, [Radio] Shangri-La blog
Teresa Belton’s book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would sustain life on Earth has proven an inspired read to ease into the new year, helping me to re-commit to priorities I’ve personally set (and sometimes struggled with) over the last 8 years, since I first started studying Buddhism and learning about the concept of “gross national happiness.”
This scholarly text is filled with intriguing stories of people who have made choices to live more simply,; to quit jobs they hate and step off the treadmill of consumption; to steer instead onto paths that honor who they are, instead of being who society expects them to be.
As Belton lays out artfully in her text, these choices aren’t just good for the individual; they’re helpful to the planet, overall. Having control over one’s life, she writes, rather than achieving success in the eyes of others, is what matters for genuine well-being.
One remark from an interviewee hit my recovering Type-A self hard: “The realization and the acceptance that I wasn’t ambitious in the slightest enabled me to pursue work which wasn’t about getting somewhere and more about enabling me to live a more authentic lifestyle.”
“More isn’t better,” concludes an interviewee named Mark, “…I hate waste and greed…nature is free, generous, delightful, 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 may not finish this book inspired to make radical shifts in your life, like eschewing air travel or bathing, as one woman does to preserved natural resources, using a bucket and soap rather than in the shower. You may be like one interview subject, who despairs over the use of the word “happiness” when there is intractable suffering and degradation of our natural resources. (Others point out the tremendous good even one person can make in shifting the state of the world.) But if you’re even mildly intrigued by the ideas that recognizing we are “a small part of something big” trumps any house you can buy or promotion you can get at work, and that solitude and silence and nature are more nourishing than pricey handbags, you’ll find this a satisfying read. It’s good to know there are people out there who are driven by such strong, positive beliefs that take into account their fellow humans, not simply by the grab of cash most of us are instructed to pursue.
Be true to yourself in this year 2015.
Psychotherapy and Politics International
In her ground-breaking book Happier People Healthier Planet (2014), Teresa Belton echoes the claim of many great writers and thinkers over the past century that materialism is a psychological, emotional and spiritual dead-end. Material possessions generally and consumer goods in particular have proven to be inadequate containers for all the values attributed to them or invested in them. The tragic irony of our modern civilisation’s frenetic preoccupation with getting and hoarding is that our overvalued possessions have become increasingly devoid of any real meaning, a flood of ‘stuff’, interchangeable, disposable items that induce attitudes of carelessness and habits of waste in the average consumer. Materialism also fuels war and strife as a growing human population competes with increasing desperation for scarce non-renewable material resources, including basics such as clean air, clean water and fertile soil. A materialistic, consumer-oriented society is therefore highly unlikely to deliver on its promises of peace and plenty. But Belton takes these important insights a step further with her contention that the cultivation of personal wellbeing and the shrinking of unrealistic and unsustainable material expectations are inextricably linked. Her radical and very optimistic proposal is that the proper understanding and pursuit of individual self-interest and personal wellbeing will actually serve to contribute to the creation of a sustainable life for human beings on Earth. The key to supporting such a claim will be found in evidence that personal wellbeing is enhanced by a lifestyle of modest consumerism. In other words, living the values of material modesty and self-restraint (which will need to be practised principally by the members of the developed world, those who already possess more than they need) is not only essential to the global sustainability and wellbeing of the planet, but can promote happiness at the individual level. Is this true? Are modest consumers actually happier than immodest consumers? Belton’s Modest Consumers study suggests that this might be so, although the results of the study are not without some ambiguity. But if material modesty does indeed enhance happiness and personal wellbeing, can a critical mass of immodest consumers become convinced of this truth for themselves? Can they alter their lifestyles accordingly? Belton’s book seeks to make a contribution to this much-needed sea change.
Psychotherapists take note. Much of the malaise that afflicts our middleclass and above clients today could be diagnosed as a disorder of rising expectations and a stressful striving for upward mobility (or reactions to that striving) that produce anxiety and disappointment instead of satisfaction and contentment. Treatment of this condition – commonly known as “Affluenza” – requires a degree of mindfulness about our own parallel process and countertransference responses to this syndrome. Most of us pay some lip service to the general idea that the personal is political. Here is an opportunity to experiment with incorporating our political awareness of the larger systems within which we live our lives (materialism, capitalism, globalism) into the practical work of therapy as we assist our clients to process the unthought known’s in their lives.
Perhaps the weakest link in Belton’s book is the relative infrequency with which she offers a critical perspective that addresses the sociology and sociometry of power. Belton’s primary interest is in empowering individuals. Her decision is to stay faithful to the many small steps that ordinary people can achieve if and when they decide to alter their own consumerist tendencies. Of course Belton is well aware that our efforts to raise our collective consciousness about our human condition are profoundly impacted and impeded by global economic and political forces that consistently work for profit and growth and equally consistently work against eco-justice and sustainability. More attention to the ‘hidden curriculum’ of capitalism and globalism might be helpful to people seeking to free themselves from a consumerist mind-set. This caveat notwithstanding, Belton has made a significant contribution to the literature on sustainability, living an intentional, values-informed life, and learning to recognise and resist the siren song of a dominant culture of materialism and consumerism that promises so much and delivers so little.
Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand
36 July 2016
Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth
review by Caroline Stow
In her preface to this expansive and highly relevant book, Teresa Belton sets out her hypothesis that ’the cultivation of personal wellbeing and the shrinking of unsustainable material expectations can be understood as bound together’.
In examining both aspects, she is following on from themes explored in works such as Oliver James’ ‘Affluenza’, whose critique of consumerism has added a new word to our language, and Joanna Macy and Molly Brown’s ‘Coming back to Life’, which explores creative responses to the deepening global ecological crisis. In this thoughtful consideration of the unhealthy and unwelcome psychological and social effects of affluence, Belton has examined a wide range of sources and most notably uses the voices of ordinary people who have chosen to live ‘materially modest lives’ about the impact of their decisions on their world view and their wellbeing.
Reinforcing our understanding of the current situation, she considers the persuasive data on the depletion of the world’s resources because of human over-consumption and the related issues of climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity etc. Whilst not ignoring the radical political shifts needed to address the root causes of the over exploitation of the planet, one of her key points is that most of ecological damage from carbon emissions comes from households and that, therefore, we do have the potential and the power to make a difference by our own individual decisions to live more materially modest lives. Crucially, the decision to do so is likely to open the way to a pattern of living, which will also sustain and promote our wellbeing rather than damage it.
This contrasts with, the feeling of being completely overwhelmed and powerless in the face of events in the world, causing us to fall prey to denial and despair, and for many the natural instinct is to turn away and submerge these fears. Ironically, this can lead to ‘submergence in distractions, which, in the end, leave many of us chronically dissatisfied and physically and emotionally unhealthy’.
The subtitle of her book, ‘How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth’ would, if put into practice, also have the outcome of addressing the malaise which strikes societies which discover that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is not helped in any way by the pursuit of wealth above all else. ‘Having it all’, it seems, is simply corrosive of our sense of purpose. But without first becoming aware of the wider implications, most humans find it almost impossible to resist consumption. Evolution has hard wired us to consume, but in an environment of scarcity not of plenty. Now too much of the time, consumption is not the way to allow us to have ‘comfortable lives, liberated from drudgery but a means to display style and taste which becomes personal identity’. I am often put in mind of the circle in Dante’s inferno reserved for ‘hoarders and wasters’. What, I wonder, would he have made of Ikea’s careful design which makes its customers walk past thousands of unnecessary items precisely to trigger their instinct to gather things or the self-aggrandising Facebook pages setting out our over abundant lives for the whole world to see.
Belton’s assertion that ‘the need for an earnest reappraisal of everyday life in order to address these issues could not be more urgent’ is backed by her research into the lives and perspectives of individuals who find happiness in relatively low consumption lifestyles in Britain, by asking the questions ” Do you live a life of modest material consumption? Are you happy with your lifestyle?” From very different personal reflections on their lives, how their childhood and later experiences shaped their choices, Belton has drawn out many common themes. One of the most notable is how content most of the people in the study are with their situation and with the control they feel they have over their lives. Many rated their satisfaction with life as 8 or 9 out of 10. Despite the fact that this was a self-selecting group, there seems to be a wide range of individuals in very varied circumstances. ‘Modest’ in this case is not an absolute value but in the eye of the individual consumer. But in very many cases similar findings and values came to the forefront of their narratives: ‘Discovering and enjoying one’s own creativity, noticing the small things in life and having a sense of appreciation and gratitude for what one has got. Not constantly wanting more’. Connection with communities and families, appreciation of nature, and, above all the time and freedom to engage with personal passions, whatever they are, all appear to give a sense of self and a personal autonomy that allow individuals to flourish. For many this meant deliberately going against the prevailing values around them by cutting out the things which would distract them from living meaningful lives.
Ecology as a Spiritual Practice
Potentially of particular interest to a Quaker audience is the portrayal of ecological concerns as a spiritual practice; an active inclination, involving conscious awareness of and engagement with those facets of life which speak to the spirit rather than to worldly needs and desires and linking spiritual practice to the cultivation of human qualities of compassion, awareness, responsibility and a sense of going out and beyond oneself. What is also clear is that to be able to enjoy the many real sources of wellbeing we need certain skills, qualities and dispositions and these need cultivating, particularly if we are to develop the emotional resilience to deal with the challenges we will face in the coming years.
On rereading this book, and in the context of the current political climate in the UK where growth, the production and sale of yet ‘more’ seems to be the solution to all economic, social, environmental or other problems, rather than addressing the distribution of wealth and power in society. I am very much struck by the urgent requirement for us to take personal responsibility for our own consumption. To ‘replace our materialistic impulses with the understanding that sustainable, equitable, human thriving is to be found in modest material conditions and rich social, emotional, cultural and spiritual ones.’
The examples of individuals who have already made these changes are both engaging and inspiring, not least because of the eclectic mix of contributors from all parts of the country who have all come to the same decisions.
‘They were changed themselves before they set out to change others’