Green Pioneers Interview: Catherine O’Brien on Sustainable Happiness

To help celebrate the work of green pioneers and share great environmental achievements with the world we have decided to produce a series of interviews with a huge range of green champions from across the world. 

To kick-start our series we have interviewed Catherine O’Brien who developed the concept of sustainable happiness – a theory which examines the integral link between happiness and sustainability.

Catherine O'BrienSustainable happiness reinforces the fact that we are interdependent with one another and with the natural environment and therefore our mutual well-being is in-explicitly interconnected. 

Catherine defines her concept as:
”Happiness that contributes to individual, community and global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations”.

Sustainable Happiness

So Catherine, what is your background? How did you come up with this concept?

My background is in sustainability education. Whilst I was at the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India I began to think about the relationship between happiness and sustainability during my doctoral research. The college itself had an award-winning and extraordinary education process for sustainable community development. I lived there with my husband and two young children and truly felt that we were living in a culture of joy. This therefore inspired my first notion back in 1995, that people might be happier if we lived sustainably.

Later, as I became more familiar with positive psychology I realised that happiness research was very consistent with sustainability. However, most of the happiness literature didn’t make a connection with sustainability and the sustainability literature didn’t make a connection with happiness.

Also, the media had picked up on the happiness buzz and were often equating their products with happiness. It struck me that it could be valuable to have a concept that reinforces the connection between sustainability and happiness. I felt that sustainable happiness could assist individuals, organisations and nations to find new ways to foster happiness, well-being and sustainability.

The Happiest Cities in the World [Infographic]

What work have you done so far to help develop this concept?

I have created a university course on sustainable happiness that I teach at the Cape Breton University in Canada. I have also co-developed a course for UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health that integrates sustainability, happiness and health. Whilst developing these courses I was frequently asked about creating a course for the general public so I worked with colleagues, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, and my husband Ian Murray who is a filmmaker to create an online course for everyone.

Since my field is education, I have also developed a free education resource for teachers which includes sustainable happiness lesson plans. In addition I have been involved in research that investigated the emotional experience of children and their parents on the trip to school. I see the positive emotions that children experience while walking to school as an example of sustainable happiness. Our research has found that children who walk to school reported more positive emotions than children to who were transported passively. The results were even more dramatic for parents. Parents who walked to school with their children reported more positive emotions than parents who drove their children.

You can see a full list of my publications and presentations on my website.

What plans do you have for the future?

I will be publishing a book very soon called ‘Lessons in Sustainable Happiness’. The first part of the book is specifically for teachers to enhance their happiness and well-being. The remainder of the book includes sustainable happiness for grades K-9.

I am very interested in encouraging municipalities to recognize how they are currently fostering sustainable happiness and also what measures they could take to enhance this. I’ve teamed up with 8-80 cities to create a brief brochure that outlines sustainable happiness for municipalities. We often see reports about the world’s happiest cities. I’d like to see the conversation expand to incorporate sustainability with happiness.

Why do you think this is so important?

It is important for all of us to understand that every day our life touches and is touched by other people, other species and the natural environment. We are deeply interconnected, but those interconnections aren’t always visible or obvious. Consequently, in a consumer society we can lose sight of the fact that we are all making daily choices that contribute or detract from, well-being.  I believe that sustainable happiness can make those connections more clear, and encourage people to make choices that contribute to their well-being and the well-being of other people and the environment.

196649_361785440564836_1765972281_nOur formal education systems haven’t taught us explicitly about happiness and I think it is important for all of us to develop a happiness literacy. I also believe that learning about sustainable happiness can assist with positive mental health.

Another factor is that indulging in over consumption is neither the path to happiness nor sustainability. Sustainable happiness can assist us to shift towards more sustainable lifestyles whilst maintaining a high quality of life.

Sustainable happiness week

Sustainable happiness week

What can people do to take part?

There are lots ways that individuals can have a sustainable happiness lifestyle. One of the activities that I give my students is the Sustainable Happiness Footprint Chart. They can use that to chart their activities for a day, a week, or longer to notice how daily choices are impacting their well being.

There are a range of other activities on my website and suggestions in a recent article entitled ‘Sustainable Happiness? 6 ways to Get There‘ in YES! magazine.

You can also take part in Sustainable Happiness week from April 13th – 20th
http://www.happycounts.org/about-sustainable-happiness-week/

Are you passionate about green issues if so which?

Absolutely! That’s part of sustainable happiness!

A key area where my work has focused is on child friendly planning and creating municipalities that support active travel for children. I also co-developed Child Friendly Planning Guidelines for Canada. Sustainable happiness links happiness and sustainability together. It reinforces the fact that we are interdependent with one another and the natural environment – that our mutual well-being is interconnected. It can also be used as a road map to explore what truly makes your heart sing.

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White Xmas? No,make it a Green Xmas!

As Christmas approaches,here are a few tips to ensure that we all make it as green as possible:

Make your leftovers into compost: While leftovers at your place could be few and far between, if you do have leftover food, turn it into compost. This will a) reduce landfill and b) be good for your garden or plants.

Recycle your wrapping paper: So the presents have all been unwrapped and met with happiness/disgust/apathy (delete as appropriate). The wrapping paper itself is forgotten about or piled into the bin. Do the right thing and recycle it or, if you can, reuse it again next year!

Turn Xmas lights off when you’re out and about or asleep: The lights are dazzling to look at, but that will not even be a possibility when the electricity they take up runs out. Turn them off when possible.

Donate unwanted toys/clothes/books to charity: Charity shops are calling out for these items and throwing them away adds to the already vast amount of landfill, as well as depriving other children of the chance to enjoy them.

Don’t overeat: Although we see Christmas as a time to overindulge, cooking too much means we use more resources than we need such as gas, water and electricity.

Put into perspective, we should obviously enjoy Christmas, but we should also be aware of how the holiday is affecting the environment. Christmas is supposed to be a time of reflection, so maybe make the time and effort to think about what you can do to ensure Christmas can still be a cause for celebration.

Healthy Planet is helping to teach school children the virtues of making Christmas more environmentally friendly with free lesson plans for teachers and parents. To find out more visit Healthy Planet’s Christmas lesson plans.

By Yasmina Jackson

Happy Earth Day!

Dear Healthy Planeteers,

The day we have been waiting for since 23 April 2009 is finally here and Healthy Planet wants to be the first to wish you a Happy Earth Day!

Being a conservation charity means more than just counting down to Earth Day and writing celebratory blogs. It means encouraging people to make greener decisions, whether that is giving a plot of land instead of a tradition present or turning off the water when brushing you teeth. It also means ensuring a healthy future, which we are doing by distributing Free Earth Day teaching resources to UK primary schools.

The lessons are not only for Earth Day or Earth Week. We hope that teachers will continue to use these year round because our lesson plans meet national curriculum guidelines while still being fun, interactive and teaching a perennial lesson.

Celebrating by saving our world,

Healthy Planet

Geographical Association maps out its annual conference

Founder Shaylesh Patel explaining Healthy Planet's Earth Day at the 2010 Geographical Association Conference

Dear Healthy Planeteers,

Where do hundreds of geography teachers, free lesson plans, and Healthy Planet cross paths? Other than in the classroom on Earth Day, at the Geographical Association conference this past weekend! The annual GA conference is a forum for delegates, teachers, students, academics, and now Healthy Planet. It’s the largest event of its kind and includes informational lectures and debates as well as field visits and hands on workshops.

Maybe that’s why Healthy Planet works so closely with the GA.

Our lesson plans include information for students in the form of discussions and YouTube videos while still being fun and interactive, for example, placing footprints on devices that create a carbon footprint and making brochures about how to stay safe in extreme weather conditions.

We set up a booth at the conference to promote our FREE Earth Day lesson plans, which carry the GA seal of approval. Our lesson plans target primary students to teach them age appropriate lessons about environmental issues. These lesson plans can be downloaded from the website as can more information about our Earth Day programme. Schools are getting involved in this mass lesson to inspire primary children, the future generation of the UK and the future guardians of the Earth.

Putting ourselves on the conservation map,

Healthy Planet