The Happy Heart of Sustainability
By Liz Zeidler
It’s a momentous week for Bristol’s ‘’green movement”. Big Green Week is upon us and on Friday we’ll know if Bristol is to be named the Green Capital of Europe. So with planetary survival hitting the local headlines, talk of increasing ‘happiness’ might sound like a pleasant and rather fluffy distraction. Yet growing numbers of people, across all sectors of society are talking about happiness as if it really matters. Bristol’s ground-breaking Happy City Initiative is fast becoming a leading light in the movement aiming to demonstrate that far from being a distraction, a focus on happiness might be the key to unlocking a new form of sustainable prosperity for all.
It seems to surprise people that we’ve had 60 years of nearly constant economic growth and yet happiness and wellbeing measures have hardly improved at all in that time. This is not a coincidence.
Constant growth (as opposed to steady prosperity) requires each of us to be a little bit unhappy all the time – enough dissatisfaction with what we have, to think we always need more to be happy. Not just that we need things, but that we need more things this year than last, more next than this, and so on. Happiness must always appear to be just over the horizon, and more ‘stuff’ must be the pathway to it. That’s the deal. It’s a pre-requisite for continual economic growth.
Whilst there is no correlation between increasing happiness and perpetual economic growth, there is a strong correlation between happiness and improving health, education, environmental improvements and reductions in inequality and crime. Plus, rather usefully, that correlation is 2 way – happier people and populations consume less natural resources, learn better, work more productively, creatively and collaboratively; they are healthier, less likely to be violent or act criminally, less dependent on welfare….I could go on. Improving society and solving major social problems makes people happy, AND making people happy improves society and substantially reduces many social problems.
This isn’t fluffy stuff. Happiness isn’t just a pleasant outcome, or even ‘just’ the ultimate goal for society (though it’s both of those) – it is also the route to solving most of our most critical challenges – locally, nationally and globally. If we’re to solve global poverty – we in the ‘developed’ world, need to consume less. If we’re to solve global warming – we in the ‘developed’ world, need to consume less.
When we reject the assumption that the route to happiness is via increased wealth and greater consumption and focus instead on the REAL pathways to happiness – we necessarily and naturally (and happily) consume less. You can ask someone in inner-city Glasgow, rural Botswana, Palestine, Poland or Bristol, and the ingredients for happiness they’ll share are remarkably similar. You’ll hear talk of family, friends and community. A sense of belonging, purpose and value will be high on the list. Getting outside, clean environments, opportunities to interact and get involved, being active, learning and growing, helping others and being helped all support happiness. These things don’t need much ‘stuff’. A long term happy inducing life-style is both low carbon and relatively low cost.
Paul Hawkins estimated around 2 million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice worldwide (Blessed Unrest 2007), and in Bristol alone there are thousands of exceptional and worthwhile organizations, projects and individuals trying to tackle these big issues. But until we tackle the cause of our over-consumption – indeed the addiction we have to unhappiness and 'stuff' being the only route out – those activities can only ever be a sticking plaster. Using the ‘stick’ of fear of the human or environmental consequences of our consumption isn’t working on any significant scale. Selling the benefit from the ‘carrot’ of greater happiness is far more likely to persuade whole societies to change their behaviour and make different choices.
So, if we’ve been hooked on unhappiness for over 60 years, it’s going to take quite a bit of effort to quit our addiction. Everywhere we look, every magazine and billboard, every doom and gloom headline, every point scoring political jibe – is telling us we’ll be happy when (we have a new car, new hairstyle, new government…). We are riddled with fear, blame and a sense of lack.
Happy City is trying to change that lens, change the narrative and change the question. We are inviting people to redefine prosperity. If prosperity means to flourish and to thrive, then people of all economic levels can demonstrate prosperity – (and, for that matter, people of all economic levels can demonstrate poverty).
We are busy talking, working, playing, listening, growing, learning, writing…. with real people in real communities, who have no interest in policy, papers and measurements. We are working within local communities, uncovering what’s working, what local inspirations and activities are already growing happiness, improving health, supporting learning, connecting people, supporting the vulnerable…. Then we’re shouting about it – cross-pollinating ideas and resources, connecting up people to help make more things happen.
Plus we’re tapping into the passion and energy of people across the city, to light to touch paper on projects involving art, music, faith, business, sport, food, schools, walking, history…. with happiness.
You can ask the person on the street if they are passionate about green issues, about social justice, about local development, or about football, food or fashion. For every yes, you’ll get a dozen no’s. All subjects divide as much as they connect, yet happiness is something common to everyone. People in every corner of the globe want happiness, for themselves, their families and their community. Happiness is an umbrella that encompasses so much positive human activity. It is a shared purpose and goal for people of all backgrounds, outlooks, beliefs, ages and passions.
Our happiness is inter-connected and inter-dependent with each other and the planet – locally, nationally and globally. When it comes to happiness we really are “all in this together”
Have a very HAPPY Big Green Week.