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.

Why we need to change the way we see our stuff!

All is a clutter!I have to confess to being a bit of a hoarder (see my previous post) much to my partner’s dismay!

I hold onto stuff in my compact home which does nothing to enhance my life, and if anything it restricts me by encroaching onto my precious space! I was watching TV (The One Show) and saw a feature with Jasmine Harman about her mother who is a serious hoarder and their journey together as Jasmine tried to help her mother overcome her attachment to all her stuff. This made me wonder about the psychology of hoarding and how really it seems related to attachment and addiction. Wishing to hold onto everything due to the memories it holds or how you ‘might need it in the future’ is how hoarders justify it to themselves while their often dismayed loved ones look on in confusion of their lifestyle choices.

Jasmine & her mum

Jasmine & her mum with all her stuff

On the BBC Show My Hoarder Mum and Me Jasmine says:It’s very intense but they also feel a huge responsibility towards their possessions. They feel they’re saving these potentially useful items that have been discarded. In a way we could learn a lesson from that in our throwaway society; its good to reuse items but with hoarders it gets way out of hand!”

Tweet: ” @Jasmineharman  If you missed me & Mum on #TheOneShow yesterday, catch up on iplayer here! http://bbc.in/11iAmda  @39.40 mins ”

Jasmine continues to say how ashamed of her home she was whilst growing up and howshe is so delighted that since they have been working together to reduce the stuff her mother has been holding onto, their family could spend Christmas together for the first time in years as now they had the space for their large family and dogs!

eleIt clearly has taken lots of love, patience and support to reach that point with her mother and it is an on-going battle. Thinking about how much better space is when filled with family and love rather than with lots of  stuff collecting dust is enough to guilt any owner to tackle the “I must get around to sorting through that !” burden.

If you are  interested in finding out more about Jasmine & hoarding I recommend reading the BBC blog or visit the organisation Jasmine has set up Help for Hoarders.

Changing our perspective
I think that we need to stand up to our stuff, stage an intervention, decide that this stuff which sits in piles unloved could be given a new home a chance at a second life and this can be done a number of ways. We need to move from a linear system to a cyclical one – see the video made by the Ellen Macarthur foundation on Circular Economy & the Story of Stuff to explore why this is important to us all.

8199678080_a3a0efd71e_cSince I took some items to our Stuff for Free events (my old necklaces were greeted with whoops of excitement by some young girls at the event) I am beginning to see my things in a new way, I see how some things that I take for granted that are neglected for months could bring another person joy and try to think of the potential of having more space and less things. Most of all we need support from our loved ones to learn to let go and remember that:

Joy is not in things; it is in us. –Richard Wagner.

To get your started on your decluttering mission here are some ideas!

1) Store it!

  • Stuff you want to keep but may not need on a daily basis could go in the loft, under the stairs cupboard (or create one – like I did) or in the garden shed – but don’t forget to label it!
  • Try a #collabcons solution such as Storemates where you store stuff in your neighbours empty spaces.

2) Share or sell it:

  • Take it to Stuff for Free events (the next one is in Islington from 23rd Feb-3rd March) or a Books for Free centre
  • Share it via Streetbank is a site that helps you share and borrow things from your neighbours. Streetbank is meant for everyone. It is not for private benefit – for individuals to make a profit or professionals to sell their services.
  • Sell some of your stuff via sites like eBay or at a car boot sale.
  • Donate items to local charity shops / school jumble sales / local church or Salvation Army
  • Upload them onto Freecycle / Freegle

3) story-of-stuff-book-adds-to-the-vision-of-decreased-consumptionFurther help & support:

4) Decluttering tips

Dawn at Stuff for Free Leytonstone

Author:  This blog was written by Dawn Newton Marketing Executive for Healthy Planet & keen upcycler. Connect on twitter @goreckidawn

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