In the last 100 years, we got very confused about happiness. This is no small thing. The way we define happiness drives what we do, what we’re willing to sacrifice, and how we spend our money and our time.
This confusion didn’t just happen. Advertisers spend billions spreading the illusion that more stuff will bring us happiness. And policy wonks of all political stripes—but especially those connected to business interests—spread the message that economic growth leads to well-being. Both have turned out to be false promises that have instead been undermining the very conditions that could lead to sustainable happiness.
Sustainable happiness is a form of well-being that goes deep—it’s not a fleeting sensation of pleasure or a temporary ego boost. Instead, it is enduring because it taps into our most authentic aspirations and involves building relationships and practices that support us through good times and bad.
Sustainable happiness is built on a mutually supportive community. It grows out of knowing that our well-being is linked to that of our neighbors. When we feel that we can count on others in difficult times, that there is a place for everyone, and that we can make contributions and be recognized for them, we have the foundations of sustainable happiness.
The good news is that sustainable happiness is compatible with a healthy environment, an equitable world, and our own fulfillment. And it is contagious—the things that create well-being for one person tend to be good for others and for all life.
Sustainable happiness is possible—but much depends on the choices we make individually and as a society. Here are some ideas for where to start, each of which are developed more fully in the new anthology, Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference.
1. Stop the trauma
Like the common sense rule contained in the Hippocratic Oath, we could start by doing no harm.
Life inevitably brings some kinds of hurt: A relationship breaks up, a loved one dies, or a job fails to materialize. With support from friends and family, we recover and go on.
Yet there are types of trauma that can be debilitating for a lifetime and even across generations. And many are preventable.
Veterans suffer high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 30 percent of those treated in VA hospitals after returning from deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq have PTSD. Their children also suffer and are more likely to be anxious or depressed.
Sexual violence is another way large numbers of people are traumatized. An estimated one in five women will be raped over the course of her lifetime, and a third of rape survivors will experience PTSD. Survivors are also three times as likely to have an episode of serious depression.
Nearly 700,000 children are subjected to sexual and physical abuse each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children suffer disproportionately from poverty, which also causes lasting trauma.
And there are the intersecting traumas caused by generations of exclusion, economic dislocation, and violence directed at people of color, who experience higher rates of PTSD as a result of ongoing racism, according to research cited by Dr. Monica Williams in Psychology Today.
Among the most important ways to create a happier world is to end the wars, abuse, and exclusion that are sources of continued trauma, and to support the healing of survivors.
2. Create equity
Stress can be healthy, if it’s the right kind. Short-term stress actually increases memory and mental function.
But chronic stress—especially stress caused by events over which we have little control—increases the risk of heart disease and the likelihood of death. The Whitehall Studies—the famous 20th century investigations into the causes of death and disease among British civil servants—showed that low-status workers had a death rate three times higher than those in the upper reaches of the hierarchy, even when controlling for other class-based stress factors. It’s an insight confirmed by subsequent research.
The damage caused by inequality extends beyond the workplace. Epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson has demonstrated that those living in unequal societies have many times higher rates of mental illness, homicide, and teen pregnancy.
So if we want healthier and happier lives, we need a more equitable society—fairer in both an economic sense and in terms of the empowerment we all have to determine our own lives.
3. Value everyone’s gifts
It may be counterintuitive, but sustainable happiness comes from what we give, not what we take or even what we have. People who find their unique gifts and are able to offer them to others are often happiest.
Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, published a study in Psychology Science that shows winning the respect and admiration of our peers matters more than having stuff. “You don’t have to be rich to be happy, but instead be a valuable contributing member to your groups,” says Anderson. “What makes a person high in status in a group is being engaged, generous with others, and making self sacrifices for the greater good.”
Likewise, research shows that our happiness increases when we have the respect of our peers, but not necessarily when we have a higher income or more wealth.
College students who are politically engaged are happier, according to research by professor Tim Kasser. “Political activism scores were associated with feeling more pleasant emotions, reporting greater life satisfaction, and having more experiences of freedom, competence, and connection to others,” he says in a YES! Magazine article, “Making a Difference Makes You Happy.”
4. Protect the integrity of the natural world
The natural world doesn’t just bring us happiness; it is what makes life possible, and protecting its integrity contributes to sustainable happiness.
Getting out into nature improves our sense of well-being and is especially important for children. Benefits include reduced stress, improved health, more creativity, and better concentration, says Amy Novotney in the Monitor on Psychology.
The illusion that humans are separate and apart from the living Earth is finally giving way to an understanding that our fate is tied to the fate of the planet on which we all depend. Our work to protect and restore the planet’s ecosystems will mean clean water, healthy foods, a stable climate, and a better shot at sustainable happiness for generations to come.
5. Develop practices that support our own well-being
An egalitarian society that protects the natural world; minimizes war, racism, and abuse; and welcomes the expression of each person’s unique gift provides the foundation for sustainable happiness. But we don’t have to wait for the world to change. There are things we can do at home, too, that boost our own sustainable happiness.
We can exercise, a better cure than prescription drugs for much of what ails us. A sedentary life is as dangerous to health as smoking, according to studies cited by the American College of Sports Medicine. Regular moderate exercise not only reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke; it also makes us happier, often controlling depression as effectively as prescription antidepressants. It’s much cheaper, and all of the side effects are good.
Some of the happiest people are those who have survived great illnesses or other major life challenges and have become conscious of the choices they make about their finite lives. There’s something about facing the possible end of life that brings into focus the precious choice we have about how to spend our remaining days.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Viktor E. Frankl wrote.
One more thing: In a time of increasing disruptions related to a changing climate and economic dislocation, our challenge will be to create the conditions that encourage us to turn to each other in hard times, not turn on each other. We are far more likely to achieve that in a more equitable world, where we are mindful of the many blessings we have and skilled at discovering sources of happiness that don’t cost the planet, but are abundant and free.