Happier People Healthier Planet
09 Jun 2016 | Teresa Belton
It was a beautiful day and I was enjoying riding my bike along a
quiet cycle track, with trees and hedges on either side and birds
Suddenly, a thought came to me: most of the things that really
make us feel good are things that don't harm the environment - like
cycling, chatting with friends, gardening, getting lost in a book,
singing, helping a local charity, sharing a joke.
What an interesting idea to explore, I thought.
The result, was Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting
wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth. And writing
it turned into a fascinating journey of discovery of unexpected
connections between all sorts of diverse issues.
The more I read about wellbeing research - and also about
climate change and other environmental threats - the more I saw a
paradox. We are destroying the Earth's ecological systems with our
insatiable demand for goods and energy, even though having more and
more stuff doesn't really make us happy.
On one hand it was alarming to realise that almost every
product we purchase, however small, contributes to environmental
destruction. But on the other it was really heartening to learn how
much the foundations of true wellbeing lie in things that can't be
bought - like good relationships, learning skills, being creative,
feeling part of a community, thinking about the needs of others,
and spending time in natural surroundings.
If this was understood more widely and used as the guiding
principle of our personal lives and government policies, it could
clearly offer us the route away from the abyss of environmental
destruction - as well as the means to create a happier
It's true that buying new possessions does give us a pleasurable
buzz - but that buzz soon passes. The satisfaction from buying
stuff doesn't last nearly as long, or mean nearly as much, as the
satisfaction of a new friendship made, a picture painted or a shelf
So the core message of Happier People Healthier Planet is that we
urgently need to turn our attention away from buying and selling
and private profit, towards developing the human qualities,
personal skills and social conditions that make for deep-down,
long-lasting enjoyment and satisfaction in life.
This message sounds simple, but the relationship between
personal wellbeing and environmental sustainability is actually
For example, happier people will, on the whole, be content
to consume less. Why? Because what motivates much of our excess
consumption is the desire to boost our image in the eyes of others.
So huge quantities of clothes, household enhancements, gadgets,
cosmetics and so on constantly fly off the shelves. This buying
behaviour is much less likely by individuals who are comfortable
with themselves as they are - and self-acceptance is a vital aspect
Another common motivation for shopping is trying to mend or
overcome unhappiness. Who knows how many pairs of shoes, glossy
magazines, continental weekend breaks, or other "treats" are
purchased as retail therapy for unhappy people trying to get away
from uncomfortable emotions.
Yet a walk in the park or on the beach, putting on a CD and
dancing wildly, or writing a diary might very well lift the spirits
just as effectively - and at virtually no cost to the
There are also many positive reasons why greater wellbeing is
likely to help people to live more eco-friendly lives: happier
people have been found to be more realistic and have greater
self-control, so happiness gives some protection from impulse
And experiencing mostly positive emotions, another important
element of wellbeing, enables us to see the bigger picture, while
negative emotions tend to narrow our attention. Thus being happy in
ourselves makes it easier for us to take on board the bigger, more
distant implications of our personal behaviours - such as how our
decisions to drive, fly, take the bus or train, or walk, will
impact on the wider environment.
While researching my book I conducted a study of people who
actively choose to live lives of relative material modesty. These
people show how fulfilment can often arrive unsought, simply from
pursuing a range of non-materialistic concerns.
Their stories and insights illustrate just how much connecting
with people and with nature, active engagement, living mindfully
and purposefully, being physically active and appreciating and
enjoying small details really are the very stuff of happiness.
Although it wasn't necessarily easy, these "modest consumers"
also had the satisfaction of knowing that they were making
One of them explained to me why he lived the way he did:
"Because 'more' isn't better. Because I hate waste and greed,
and [possessions] are weighty and unsatisfying while nature is
free, generous, delightful and uplifting. Because consuming only
what I find I need reduces my carbon footprint and allows me to
feel good about myself and my place in this environment"
Teresa Belton is a visiting fellow at the School of Education
and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia. Happier People Healthier Planet brings together
her long-standing personal concern for the environment and an
interest in wellbeing and the origins of attitudes, values and