In environmental circles, more and more activists, writers, analysts, and policy-makers are emphasizing the need to create and communicate a vision of a human future, living in harmony with the natural systems of which we are a part. It seems the ubiquitous bad news about environmental conditions, and its associated critique, have reached the saturation point. There is no longer the need to convince that climate change and other environmental domains are reaching a human-exacerbated tipping point.
Most people now know that we can no longer continue to inhabit the Earth in the ways we have become accustomed to. Even so, few are able to elaborate a vision of the future that is both attractive and full of potential. What is needed, I believe, is a vision of the future based on the positive psychology – the science of well-being. As this relatively nascent science develops, its findings are pointing the way toward ways of life that increase our sense of well-being and allow us to tread lightly on the Earth at the same time. Obviously, any shift away from the status quo is fraught with challenge. The shift that is necessary in our vision of the good life, in order to preserve our planet for future generations, should be based on the knowledge that, once we make the necessary adjustments to our identities, values, intentions, and actions our lives will fundamentally improve. This vision should make the fear-inducing specter of sacrifice a non-issue.
Positive psychology points to several domains through which we can maximize our sense of well-being and happiness; positive emotions, engaging relationships, meaning and purpose in our work and daily activities, and some sense of self-determination (e.g. autonomy, relatedness, and competence). Within each of these domains, we can look to scientifically-supported positive interventions to help us cut a path to higher levels of well-being. For example, the practice of keeping a daily gratitude journal for a period of three months has been shown to significantly improve well-being. This simple practice works primarily within the domain of positive emotions (i.e. gratitude), but also allows us to recognize the importance of our loving relationships and meaningful activities – there is certainly cross-over between domains with most applied positive interventions.
One of the criticisms of employing the science of well-being as a vision for a sustainable future is that it is not specific enough. What does it mean on the daily living level? How do I construct my work, social, and family life around positive emotions? This criticism is well-founded. Because the science of well-being functions within the psychological realm it needs more tactile visions for living to help guide the journey. The path to greater psychological well-being must be superimposed on the real paths that we take in our lives. It is, therefore, as a guiding force where positive interventions find their true value. As we make real choices in a real world, we compare them with the guidance of well-being research. Is quitting my job the right thing to do? Do I want to have children? Should I move to the suburbs or stay in the city? Where should I shop for my groceries? These are examples of real questions that people address. It is with the guidance of well-being research and its associated positive interventions that such questions need to be answered. Answering these questions and taking subsequent action without applying the guidance of the science of well-being can be foolish – it can lead to dissatisfaction, regret, and depression.
One of the most profound outcomes of well-being research is that there appears to be no direct link between a lifestyle of material aspiration and well-being. Many well-being indicators point away from material aspirations and extrinsically-motivated behaviors. The remaining indicators indicate no causal link between the two. On the contrary, all well-being indicators implicitly support lifestyle choices consistent with a low environmental footprint. Because of this high correlation there is obvious value in making explicit connections between positive interventions and low impact lifestyles. And, quite fortuitously, by leaving out material considerations from the equation we do not risk missing out on any of the benefits attributable to the practice of improving well-being through applied positive interventions.