Sustainable Well-being

Sustainable Well-being

European_Green_Capital_Official_LogoBristol is the European Green Capital for 2015. My home city has long been a hub of progressive thinking and innovation. With its chilled West Coast vibe, Silicon Valley (the largest digital cluster outside London) and Oscar-winning filmmakers, you could describe it as the California of the UK. A lot of people choose to live in Bristol for the quality of life on offer – an abundance of urban green spaces,  independent shops, cafe culture and a strong community spirit. Near neighbour the University of Bath even has a centre for the study of quality of life.

One of the goals of Bristol 2015 is to act as a model of sustainable urban living and demonstrate what it means to be a happy and healthy city. But what does sustainability mean when it comes to human well-being?

It seems to me that sustainable happiness has two dimensions. On an inner level it is about finding ways to sustain our happiness beyond the short-term highs. On the outer level it is about a happiness that is eco-friendly: good for us and good for the planet. A greener happiness that doesn’t cost the Earth. Catherine O’Brien, who teaches sustainable happiness, defines it as “happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment or future generations.”

Authentic Happiness, according to positive psychology, is a mix of two types of well-being, one of which may hold the key to sustainable well-being.

Hedonic well-being is the type of happiness we get from pleasure and enjoyment. It is what we usually think of as happiness and you can recognise it from the peaks of positive emotion – the moments of joy, of bliss, of serenity. This is the form of happiness which is about fun and the ‘feel-good factor’ but it comes with a built-in limitation – the hedonic treadmill. What this means is that we get used to this source of our happiness and start to take it for granted. That 2nd or 3rd trip to the fabulous new restaurant will never be as good as the 1st time you ate there. Consequently you need to up the dose or add variety for this to continue to deliver as a form of happiness.

Eudaimonic well-being is the deeper happiness which comes via a variety of routes from having meaning and purpose in life to how you are at your best and realising your potential. Fulfillment is gained by putting effort into an endeavour that is meaningful to you. Eudaimonia is a term that dates back to the Ancient Greeks, but its modern definition is the experience of fulfillment which comes from acting in accordance with your values (meaning). It is a happiness which results from transcending the self.

Transcendence is key to eudaimonia – going beyond the self in the service of something external and with a sense of our connection to the bigger world. It focuses on we more than me. This is what makes eudaimonic well-being potentially the more sustainable form of well-being. For human happiness to be sustainable it has to be good for everyone and everything – to work for people and planet and not deplete our collective resources or sacrifice the future for present gratification.

The shadow side of hedonic well-being is that short-term pleasures can have long-term costs, which makes them unsustainable as sources of happiness. Eudaimonic well-being, on the other hand has arguably little or no cost, making it good for the individual, community and the planet. This is what makes it sustainable.


Unsustainable Happiness Sustainable Happiness
Drinking  Hangover
Impulse Buy  Stress of Debt
Binge Eating  Guilt & Weight Gain
Freedom of the Road  Climate Change
Act of kindness  Deeper friendship
Effort in learning  Satisfaction of achievement
Using strengths  Realising potential
Meaningful work  Sense of vocation
Appreciating beauty  Care for the environment

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes the big challenge of positive psychology as forging a more sustainable and fair social contract, helping people to not just feel better but to live better lives. Key to that is to refocus from our own personal well-being towards a wider planetary well-being.

My hope is that the European Green Capital will deliver a positive education in the routes to sustainable happiness such as how it is found in relationships more than in retail. This is how we can cultivate happiness with staying power and create a positive legacy to Bristol 2015.


Shappinesslectures_flyer_largeustainable Happiness  was the subject of the 2014 Happiness Lectures Online. The 2nd annual Happiness Lectures Online will take place on Thurs 26th March. A free event with a low carbon footprint. Details coming soon.


Find out more about the science of sustainable happiness at the Positive Psychology Masterclasses which take place at the Engineers House, Bristol.

Part 1 – Foundations of Positive Psychology, March 19-20; Part 2 – Advanced Positive Psychology, April 27-28

Green businesses involved in the European Green Capital year will benefit from a discount on the training.




Share this post