“For this generation, ours, …the pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants.”
-President Jimmy Carter
By Michael Kensler, M.S.
[Editor’s Note: While I am on sabbatical from this blog, others have stepped up with blog posts relevant to campus sustainability—and the professionals who work every day to make the world a better place. Many thanks to Mike Kensler, Director of Sustainability at Auburn University, for contributing this timely post. And many thanks to all for the many comments and sincere thoughts you all have shared with me in the last couple weeks. Does a body good. - Dave ]
Anyone working on any aspect of sustainability is doing work that really matters. We know that, which is why we as a group focus on all the urgent and important things that need to be done, neglecting our personal wellbeing in the process. We know this too, which is why “work-life balance” comes up in our conversations with some regularity.
Maybe it’s just me getting older, Dave Newport’s recent close encounter, or what appears to be increasing awareness of sustainability’s work/life trap—but more of us seem to be more concerned about feeling well while we are doing good. In short, are we making ourselves happy while we are saving the world? And if not, why not?
I had the same conversations with colleagues when I was doing environmental policy and advocacy work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Our conversations on this subject usually came around to the admission that we were hypocrites: we constantly encouraged people to get out on the Bay and its tributaries, to experience the beauty and vitality of this spectacular place, but for most of us, we were “too busy” saving the Bay to actually enjoy it and be restored by its healing powers.
We’d usually conclude these conversations by sharing an ironic chuckle, made uncomfortable by the unspoken recognition that, like society at large, we were each chewing through our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical capital instead of living off the interest of wellbeing generated by wise life-practice.
Somehow, this is something we have to get right.
In so many ways a big part of sustainability work is to, in the words of a classic bumper sticker, “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm.” I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse that sustainabilistas see the fundamental flaws and injustice in the current political, economic, and social system and envision a different way. But because we do, we find ourselves impelled to do something about it to make a different and better world.
Well, the work-life balance/personal wellbeing paradigm that has us living off the principle and not the interest of our stores of wellbeing needs to be subverted as well.
Perhaps one way we can do this is to make wellbeing a larger part of our conversation about what sustainability is and why it matters. Personal wellbeing may be too hidden, subsumed in the “people” part of the triple bottom line. That’s why I like and use Alan AtKisson’s Sustainability Compass, which graphically depicts the four cardinal points of a compass, N, E, S, and W, as four intermingled aspects of sustainability: Nature, Economy, Society, and individual Wellbeing
Why do we do all this sustainability stuff anyway? Isn’t it ultimately about wellbeing for all? I love this quote by Amory Lovins, and it is a good reminder: “The many crises facing us should be seen…not as threats, but as chances to remake the future so it serves all beings.” Remake the future why? To serve all beings; to serve wellbeing for all.
Perhaps another way we can create a new paradigm that prioritizes personal wellbeing, while serving the common good at the same time, is to intentionally model wellbeing in our own life-practice and nurture it in others.
In our personal lives we strive to model energy efficiency, responsible purchasing, and so on, so why not be intentional about modeling, as best we can each day, what life is supposed to look like when we take care of ourselves? And beyond modeling, how can we, in every interaction with others, proactively bring out the best and cultivate wellbeing within them as well?
Wellbeing: happiness, health, good relationships, a sense of belonging, quality of life, meaning, accomplishment, worth, life satisfaction. Of course, these things don’t just happen. We know we have to make wellbeing a priority in our lives, but we have a hard time doing it.
What to do?
I think Martin Seligman, Stefan Klein, and others offer some insights.
Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at Penn, is a founder of positive psychology. His book Flourish, A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing offers five measures of wellbeing: positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. You can learn more about them positive psychology at his website. I think this field and the ideas presented in Seligman’s book hold a key to achieving the wellbeing aspect of the Sustainability Compass.
Physicist Stefan Klein specializes in writing about science in understandable ways, and his book The Science of Happiness covers everything from brain research to societal conditions that nurture happiness and wellbeing. He synthesizes the conditions of wellbeing this way: “Where there is a sense of community, justice, and control over our own lives, the chances that an individual can lead a happy life are good.” He calls this the “magic triangle” of wellbeing: “A civic sense, social equality, and control over our own lives constitute the magic triangle of wellbeing in society.” His words get at broader economic and societal conditions required for wellbeing, but that’s another subject.
In his TED talk on the Happy Planet Index, Nic Marks argues that the ultimate goal of society is happy and healthy citizens, who live within the laws and limits of the planet’s life-giving operating system. For individuals, he recommends five ways to wellbeing that you can learn about by watching his worthwhile talk.
When it comes to improving personal wellbeing, some themes show up repeatedly:
- Creating time and space for inner stillness: prayer, meditation, mindfulness practice; this discipline has many names. German philosopher Josef Pieper uses the term “leisure” to define this experience: “(It) is the power of stepping beyond the workaday world, and in doing so, touching upon the superhuman life-giving powers which, incidentally almost, renew and quicken us for our everyday tasks.” (Quoted in The Hidden Door by Mark Burch)
- Practicing gratitude: Seligman recommends spending ten minutes each night acknowledging and writing down three things that went well and why they went well.
- Acts of kindness and generosity: according to Seligman “…scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in wellbeing of any exercise we have tested.”
- Physical activity: walking, biking, hiking, singing, yoga, and so on; the wellbeing of body and mind are inextricably linked.
- Journaling: this practice provides space and discipline for reflection and insight.
- Spending time in nature: The average American spends 90% of the time indoors. Yet, sustainability leaders from the past like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold and plenty of others writing today passionately encourage time in nature as a way to nourish ourselves physically, psychologically, and spiritually. As you probably know, E.O. Wilson wrote a book on the subject, Biophilia, The Human Bond with Other Species. Wilson and others make the case that humans have an inborn physical and emotional connection to all of creation, and that we are served by embracing that connection. My own personal experience is that I gain from extended moments in nature a perspective that makes me a little calmer, a little quieter, with a little better perspective on what’s important in life.
Focusing our own personal wellbeing has a positive impact on society at large. People with greater life satisfaction (which has little to do with wealth and material possessions) are more generous and creative, less judgmental, more compassionate, open, and empathetic, more willing to help their neighbors.
The quality and condition of our mental and emotional state has a distinct and significant impact on our home and work environments. Check out what Daniel Goleman has to say about this in his book Primal Leadership. The characteristics of wellbeing nurtured by individuals and shared in relationships bring out the best in those relationships. Aspiration, trust, meaning, faith in each other and what is possible… these things can transform the dynamics and outcomes of our personal and professional relationships.
I am convinced that by nurturing our own personal wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around us, we live happier, healthier, more satisfied lives. What’s more, a strong sense of wellbeing empowers us to have a substantially more positive impact on others and in the broader world.
What does this kind of life look like? Ralph Waldo Emerson sums it up rather well:
“To laugh often and much, to win respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”