2012. Vol.3, No.12A, 1196-1201
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being: Future Directions for
Positive Psychology
Catherine O’Brien
Cape Breton University, Sydne y, Canada
Received September 25th, 2012; revised October 20th, 2012; accept e d N o v e mber 23rd, 2012
Positive psychology has influenced many disciplines in a very short span of time. This paper argues that
positive psychology will realize its most significant and far reaching impact when it is applied to sustain-
ability efforts, locally, nationally and internationally. Such application may accelerate shifts in attitudes,
policies, practice and behavior. Specifically, opportunities for integrating positive psychology with sus-
tainability education are discussed including work in the area of sustainable happiness, Education for
Sustainable Development (ESD) and positive education. Sustainable happiness underscores the interrela-
tionship between human flourishing and ecological resilience. Thus sustainable happiness and well-being
are integral to building sustainable futures, and positive psychology could be increasingly influential in
leading research and education that heralds a new era of understanding and political will to embrace sus-
Keywords: Sustainable Happiness; Well-Being; Sustainability; Education; Positive Psychology; Positive
Tracking the progression of publications about positive psy-
chology and happiness studies over the past ten years is akin to
watching the movement of a weather pattern, as positive psy-
chology has made inroads into numerous disciplines. The busi-
ness sector was an early and eager adopter of the teachings
from positive psychology, and interest has continued to bur-
geon. For instance, the January/February 2012 cover of the
Harvard Business Review proclaimed, “The Value of Happi-
ness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits.” Economists
are investigating national policies and indicators for happiness
(Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, & Helliwell, 2009; Diener &
Seligman, 2004; Layard, 2005; Stutz, 2006). Furthermore,
population health research is revealing the benefits of happiness
to our physical and mental health (Davidson, Mostofsky, &
Whang, 2010; Diener & Chan, 2011; Steptoe, Wardle, & Mar-
mot, 2005; Veenhoven, 2008). Additionally, the education sec-
tor is beginning to develop new curricula resources that pro-
mote “positive schools” (Boniwell & Ryan, 2012; Morrison and
Morrison, 2010; New Brunswick Department of Wellness,
Culture and Sport, 2011; O’Brien, 2010b) and positive educa-
tion (Seligman, 2011). Potential applications of positive psy-
chology to education are extensive (e.g., Gilman et al., 2009)
with the breadth of possibilities yet to be realized—particularly
with respect to sustainability education.
One of the most promising directions is the application of
positive psychology research for sustainability. The business
example above is a case in point. While increasing employee
well-being is an important goal for businesses, the resulting
increase in worker productivity may not always be consistent
with sustainability. In the absence of corporate social and envi-
ronmental responsibility, increasing efficiencies may have an
adverse impact on community or environmental well-being.
Additionally, it would be beneficial to expand research that
examines the relationship between environmental sustainability,
quality of life, and life satisfaction. A small, but growing, body
of literature is establishing the merits of decoupling happiness
and life satisfaction from over consumption. Kasser (2006)
explored materialism and the good life. The New Economics
Foundation (Marks et al., 2006) created the Happy Planet Index
(HPI) to answer such questions as, “does happiness have to cost
the earth?” In other words, can we live long and happy lives
within the resource capacity of the planet? The first HPI incor-
porated national life satisfaction and life expectancy scores
along with the Ecological Footprint of nations. Countries with
high life satisfaction and life expectancy while maintaining a
low Ecological Footprint were ranked at the top. The second
HPI (Abdallah et al., 2009) determined that Costa Rica had the
highest number of happy life years, nearly achieving a footprint
referred to as “one-planet living,” that is, using the country’s
fair share of the earth’s resources as opposed to consuming
resources as if there is access to more than one planet. By the
third HPI, Costa Rica remained at the top of the charts, while
the USA’s high Ecological Footprint brought it to 105 out of
151 countries. Importantly, the HPI illuminated that if every
country had a similar Ecological Footprint to the USA, it would
require four planets to meet this level of consumption.
A unique approach to national well-being indicators predates
the HPI. In 1972, the King of Bhutan proclaimed that Gross
National Happiness (GNH) was a more relevant indicator of the
country’s well-being than Gross National Product (Ura, Alkire,
& Zangmo, 2012). The indicators used to calculate GNH in-
corporate environmental well-being domains such as ecological
diversity and resilience. There is considerable weight given to
social indicators such as health, education, time use, cultural
diversity and community vitality that intersect with the GNH
domain of psychological well-being. Bhutan became the first
country to overtly combine these kinds of indicators, establish-
ing happiness and well-being as a national goal. After nearly
three decades of tracking GNH, Bhutan proposed a resolution
to the United Nations (UN), recommending that member states
give greater attention to happiness and well-being in their eco-
nomic and social development policies (UN, 2011). This reso-
lution was adopted by all of the 193 UN member states
(Thinley, 2012), and aligns with globally agreed targets known
as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Building on the UN resolution, Bhutan’s Prime Minister,
Thinley, hosted a high level meeting at the United Nations in
New York on April 2nd, 2012. Seven hundred delegates were
convened to discuss the next steps required for achieving the
intent of the UN resolution—a new economic paradigm for
realizing a world of sustainable well-being and happiness
(Royal Government of Bhutan, 2012). Thinley (2012) under-
scored the need for considering the links between sustainability
and happiness: “Sustainability is the essential basis and precon-
dition of such a sane economic system. An economy exists not
for mere survival but to provide the enabling conditions for
human happiness and the well-being of all life forms” (p. 64).
This meeting was particularly significant because it brought
sustainability experts together with positive psychologists and
other academics researching happiness and well-being. In addi-
tion, The World Happiness Report was launched, highlighting
the relevance of happiness studies for sustainability as well as
the broad benefits of realigning economic activity to contribute
to well-being, sustainably (Sachs, 2012).
Bridging the Gap between Sustainability and
Positive Psychology
Whereas sustainability research is often interdisciplinary, the
field has not yet effectively capitalized on the wealth of infor-
mation from positive psychology and happiness studies1; nor
has positive psychology engaged sustainability as a core theo-
retical tenet. Consider, for example, the rankings of the happiest
countries and happiest cities. These measures provide useful
information, but fall short of raising awareness that life satis-
faction declines with over consumption of natural resources or
inequitable trade practices (Royal Government of Bhutan, 2012)
and may convey incomplete information. As demonstrated
through the HPI, a country’s high life satisfaction may also be
accompanied by a high Ecological Footprint, though this isn’t
the development model to emulate. A further rationale for ad-
dressing the relationship between happiness and consumption is
that our planet is already in a state referred to as “ecological
overshoot”. By 2007, humanity’s Ecological Footprint had
already exceeded the earth’s biocapacity by 50% (Moran &
Wackernagel, 2012). We continue to use the earth’s resources
faster than they can be replenished.
Academics working in the area of sustainability who have
neglected to incorporate findings from positive psychology and
happiness studies may have dismissed the relevance of these
fields. In a world where global warming has begun (Intergov-
ernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2007) and climate
scientists are investigating both mitigation measures and adap-
tations measures, a focus on happiness could appear to be in-
consequential. Those who are deeply entrenched in efforts to
foster a more sustainable trajectory are aware of the dire straits
that human activity has set in motion in this Anthropocene age
in which the world’s population of 7 billion is having signifi-
cant, and sometimes irreversible impact on the physical envi-
ronment (Sachs, 2012). Orr (2012) suggests that we will soon
face the “perfect storm” with the convergence of more severe
climate change, deforestation, water shortages, species loss, and
the acidification of oceans to name just some of the environ-
mental challenges. He is also skeptical whether the political and
individual will to change this scenario will coalesce in time to
avoid the destruction of the human race. “We have good reason
to believe that this will be the closest of close calls, but we
must hope that humankind will emerge someday from what
biologist E.O. Wilson calls ‘the bottleneck’ chastened but im-
proved” (Orr, 2012: p. 48).
The timeline to resolve the imminent challenges of our
global community is shrinking. It’s been twenty-five years
since the Brundtland Commission published Our Common
Future, defining the term “sustainable development” (World
Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). In 1992,
world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro at the Earth Summit
for the first United Nations conference that addressed issues of
environment and development together. Most recently in June
2012, a UN conference on sustainable development (“The Fu-
ture We Want”—often referred to as Rio +20) reviewed the
progress made since 1992. Although some encouraging achie-
vements have been attained, including a reduction of extreme
poverty, sustainable access to drinking water, and equal en-
rollment in primary education for girls (UN, 2012a), more is
required. The Rio +20 report explains that “sustainable devel-
opment remains a generally agreed concept, rather than a day-
to-day, on-the-ground, practical reality” (UN, 2012b: p. 4).
Many believe that the lack of substantial progress to date war-
rants much firmer and aggressive international commitments
than the agreements that emerged from Rio +20 (Black, 2012).
There is a major role for positive psychology to play in
building further political will and bringing sustainability prin-
ciples into everyday life. Discussions of happiness and well-
being are an ideal entry point for fostering sustainable lifestyles
and policies for sustainable happiness and well-being. Happi-
ness is at the heart of who we are and what we do, but in a
consumer society where consumption and happiness are often
entangled, individuals confuse the “path to the ‘good life’ as the
‘goods life’” (Kasser, 2006: p. 200). The lifestyles and con-
sumption in the wealthiest nations are leading to environmental
degradation that has the greatest impact on less affluent coun-
tries (Sachs, 2012). The HPI indicates that many of the
wealthiest countries are exerting extensive pressure on natural
resources and consuming more than their fair share of resources
(Abdallah et al., 2009, 2012). Moreover, affluent societies do
not always represent ideal models of sustainable development.
The rising level of obesity in affluent countries is just one ex-
ample of “disorders of development” (Sachs, 2012). Our unbri-
dled pursuit of happiness is at the expense of ourselves, other
people and the natural environment. In short, we have con-
sumer societies that tend to reinforce individual lifestyles that
are unsustainable and less likely to lead to sustainable happi-
ness and overall life satisfaction.
Harnessing the power of positive psychology with goals for
sustainability could potentially accelerate progress, uncover
new solutions, and enhance sustainable happiness and well-
being. There is an unprecedented need for ramping up sustain-
ability efforts locally, nationally and internationally—and it is
vital that work on happiness and well-being embraces sustain-
1The previously mentioned HPI stands out as an exception.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1197
ability (Canadian Index of Wellbeing, 2009). Individuals and
nations do not flourish in isolation.
Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being
Sustainable happiness underscores the inter-relationships be-
tween happiness, well-being and sustainability. It has been
defined as “happiness that contributes to individual, community,
and/or global well-being without exploiting other people, the
environment, or future generations” (O’Brien, 2010a) thus dif-
ferentiating it from “sustaining happiness” or “sustainable in-
creases in happiness” (Lyubomirsky, 2007).
The concept of sustainable happiness within the field of posi-
tive psychology can be applied to foster sustainable behavior in
addition to well-being in the broadest meaning of well-being,
i.e. physical, emotional, social, spiritual, ecological well-being.
Whereas we all have a natural desire for happiness, we are
likely to lead more sustainable lives by becoming more aware
that our well-being and pursuit of happiness is associated with
the well-being of others and the natural environment (O’Brien,
2010a). Sustainable happiness disputes a common misconcep-
tion that living sustainably will lower our quality of life (Brown
and Kasser, 2005) Rather, sustainable happiness invites oppor-
tunities to enhance our quality of life and contribute to individ-
ual, community, and global well-being (O’Brien, 2010a).
For example, looking at the commuting patterns of children
and adults demonstrates how sustainable modes of transporta-
tion can contribute to positive emotions and well-being. Parents
who walk to school with their children report positive emotions
like feeling happy and relaxed more frequently than parents
who drive their children. Moreover, children who actively
commute to school also report positive emotions more often
than children who are transported by car or school bus (Rama-
nathan et al., 2012). A Statistics Canada study found that peo-
ple who walk or cycle to work are more likely to enjoy com-
muting than those who use motorized transportation (Turcotte,
2006). These happy, active commuters are contributing to their
well-being and modeling sustainable behavior. They are also
reducing adverse impacts on human and environmental health if
their decision to walk or cycle replaces a trip that would other-
wise be made by motorized transportation.
Building on these transportation examples, it is evident that
there are numerous decision points throughout each day when
individuals can make choices that contribute to individual,
community or global well-being. Reflecting on the conditions
under which our clothes are manufactured, how far our food is
transported, whether the food was produced with care for the
environment, and how we relate to one another represent daily
opportunities to contribute to, or detract from, individual, com-
munity and global well-being. This has become a primary focus
of an undergraduate course in sustainable happiness at Cape
Breton University where students apply sustainable happiness
to everyday life (O’Brien, 2010a).
Sustainable happiness is a natural bridge between positive
psychology and sustainability.
Education for Sustainable Happiness and
How can positive psychology contribute to a more resilient
and sustainable future?
While there are numerous directions that could be discussed,
this section focuses on the role of formal education and oppor-
tunities for applying positive psychology to sustainability edu-
cation. Sustainability education is a term that includes Educa-
tion for Sustainable Development (ESD) (UNESCO, 2005),
environmental education, and education about sustainability in
general. Positive psychology and sustainability education have
several challenges and opportunities in common: 1) demon-
strated benefits for students, teachers and society; 2) a lack of
substantial presence in formal education; and 3) the potential to
extensively accelerate progress towards individual, community
and global well-being.
Gardner (2006) acknowledges that the education sector is
very conservative and slow to change. This can be both a
strength and a barrier to progressive transformation. As educa-
tors, we would not serve society nor our students well if we
adopted every new proposed educational trend. The drawback,
of course, is that education systems are not very adaptive and
are rarely leading social change. Incorporating sustainability
into formal education strains the status quo, as conventional
approaches to education are still very much mired in the educa-
tion style and goals of the Industrial age (Howard, 2011; Senge,
2012). Likewise, introducing positive psychology is thwarted
by a lack of teacher training in positive psychology and the
need to justify how it intersects with approved curricular goals.
However, if we are to radically move societies towards a more
sustainable trajectory in which people and the planet flourish,
the education sector will need to incorporate both sustainability
education and positive psychology.
Who/What Is Teaching Us about Happiness?
A considerable impediment for sustainability education is to
move beyond raising individual awareness and toward fostering
sustainable behavior. This is particularly difficult in industrial-
ized countries, where students and educators live in a social and
cultural milieu of the consumer society with economic systems
that are not sustainable. It is compounded by the fact that many
students are spending more hours on the three screens (smart-
phone, computer and television) than they are in school
(Leatherdale & Ahmed, 2011; Rideout et al., 2010) and media
messages are likely to reinforce over consumption. Additionally,
the tradition in environmental education has been to focus on
“doom and gloom” messages. However, the aim of frightening
the public into choosing more environmentally-friendly behav-
iors has not succeeded in shifting our unsustainable trajectory
(Kelsey & O’Brien, 2011).
While the formal education sector has not traditionally taught
“happiness” it has gradually started to embrace positive psy-
chology with recommendations for creating “positive schools”
(Joint Consortium for School Health, 2008; Morrison & Mor-
rison, 2010) and “positive education” (Seligman, 2011). How-
ever, positive psychology and happiness research have not been
integrated into public school curricula or teacher training de-
spite the considerable merits of doing so (Conoley & Conoley,
2009; Seligman, 2011). A notable exception is the sustainable
happiness course offered to education students at Cape Breton
University in Canada (O’Brien, 2010a, 2012). Student teachers
explore ways to enhance their own happiness and well-being
while investigating how to contribute to the well-being of other
people and the natural environment, sustainably. The course
leads student teachers through applications of sustainable hap-
piness both personally and professionally. This approach could
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1199
be extended with graduate programs in education and positive
psychology by offering courses or modules on sustainable hap-
New Directions for Positive Education
Education for the 21st century can promote positive educa-
tion and positive schools by applying positive psychology in
teacher education and contributing to curricula development.
Students and society would benefit from greater attention to
student wellness, illness prevention, and happiness skills for
enhanced resilience (Seligman, 2011). This would be a pro-
gressive step forward but still grossly insufficient to foster the
massive shift in values and behavior that are required to make a
transition towards a more sustainable future—which ultimately
impacts everyone’s well-being. Integrating positive psychology
with sustainability education would introduce a comprehensive
transformation in education, engaging students and teachers in
a deep understanding of how to live and work, respecting their
own well-being and the well-being of other people, other spe-
cies, the natural environment, and future generations. It would
assist students and educators to recognize that our well-being is
interdependent and that our daily activities can contribute to, or
detract from well-being. It would also permit students and edu-
cators to make informed decisions about policies that impact
An important place to begin is with teacher education. A
seminal document on sustainability education, Guidelines and
Recommendations for Reorienting Teacher Education to Ad-
dress Sustainability (UNESCO, 2005) provides numerous
recommendations that could be reviewed by positive psycholo-
gists and educators to consider further opportunities for devel-
oping positive education. Table 1 outlines some possibilities to
consider. It pairs recommendations for sustainability education
with recommendations for incorporating positive psychology
and sustainable happiness into teacher training.
Table 1.
Reorienting teacher e ducation to sustainability, positive psychology, sustainable happiness and well-being.
Reorientin g Teacher Education for Sustainability (UNESCO, 2005) Positive E du cation and Sustainable Happiness
Require interdisciplinary coursework on sustainability for student teachers
and make materials available for student teachers on local and global
sustainability issues.
Introduce student teachers to research in positive psycholo gy and its
relevance to their school and community and the subjects they will teach.
Encourage systems thinking to integrate sustainability with p ositive
psychology. E.g. how student well-being impac t s l earning; how individ ual
well-being is interconnected with community well-being and the well-being
of the natural environment.
Demonstrate pedagogical techniques that foster higher-order thinking skills,
support decision-making, involve participatory learning and stimulat e
formulation of questions.
Critique ex i sting pedagogical techniques to determine how they contribute
to or detract from teacher and student well-being. e.g. are we bu il ding on
student strengths? (Peterson & Seligman, 2003; Seligman, 2011)
Discuss teacher w ell-being, stress prevention and management. Model
teaching practices, and assessments that contribute to we ll-being.
Emphasize to student teachers that citizenry in a sustainable community
requires active participation and decision-making into their classroom
procedure and curriculum.
Provide opportunities for student teachers to apply positive psychology to
classroom management, teaching practice and assessment strategies. e .g.
consider how to build on student strengths and reinforce positive behavior;
engage students in the i r own assessme nt and learning goals.
Discuss social equity (e.g. gender, racial, ethnic, and generational) with
student teachers and identify ways in which the local community exhibits
social tolerance, societal intolerance, equity, and discrimination.
Incorporate emerging r esearch on social equity and well-being (e.g., how
do we share the earths res ources equitably to enhance well-being?)
Request that student teachers analyze the mandated curriculum they will be
teaching to identify topics and themes related to sustainability and those that
are linked to local sustainability issues.
Guide student teac hers to analyze the mandated curric u lum they will be
teaching to identify topics and themes related to individual, community and
global well-be ing (review health education in particu l ar). (See the
Sustainable happiness and health education teachers guide, OBrien,
Provide student teachers with opportu n ities to explore their own values and
attitudes towards local sustainability problems and those of the surrounding
Provide opportunities for student teacher s to apply positive psychology both
personally and professionally (See OBrien, 20 10a, 2012).
Assist student teachers to explore their views of happiness and well-being,
to develop a happiness literacyregarding the factors that influence them
and their values about happiness.
Encourage a critical analysis of current education practice, incl uding
program delivery, how schoo l s are built (location, materials, resource use,
Promote unde rstanding of gl obal sustainability in order to encourage critical
thinking and decision-making that influence personal lifestyle and econo mic
Provide opportunities for student teachers to apply sustainable happiness
both personally and professionally (synt hesizing pos it ive psychology with
Encourage student teachers to think critically about the role of education
for sustainable happiness and well-b eing.
Develop specialized Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)
programs for student teachers (e.g. mini-courses) with certificates of
completion, so that student teachers can include them in their resumes for
seeking employment.
Promote grad u ates with ESD specializations, who are knowledgeable in
ESD and its contribution to society.
Provide teacher education courses and professional development
opportunities that apply positive p sychology and sustainable happiness to
education and educators.
The recommendations in Table 1 are not exhaustive. They
are intended to generate further discussion about sustainability
education, sustainable happiness, and positive psychology. At
this time there are some efforts to realize these recommenda-
tions, fully or in part (See O’Brien, 2010a, 2012). Education on
Gross National Happiness is also merging sustainability prince-
ples with happiness (Royal Government of Bhutan, 2012; Solu-
tions, 2011).
Beyond pre-service education (Bachelor of Education pro-
grams), educating in-service teachers (practicing teachers)
about sustainability and positive psychology requires appropri-
ate resources, ideally resources that relate to the subjects that
educators are required to teach. A teacher’s guide for sustain-
able happiness and health education (O’Brien, 2010b) provides
lessons for kindergarten to grade six and links sustainability
with happiness research and health education. As well, recent
book publications provide lessons on positive psychology that
could be adapted or extended to reflect sustainability principles
(Boniwell & Ryan, 2012; Conoly & Conoly, 2009; MacCon-
ville & Rae, 2012; Seligman, 2011).
Concluding Thoughts
The union of sustainability, happiness and well-being has the
potential to be transformative for individuals, for communities
and nations, and for our planet. It can accelerate shifts in atti-
tudes, policies, practice and behavior. We have already wit-
nessed international support through the UN Resolution on
Happiness and Well-being but if we are to fully embrace flour-
ishing (Seligman, 2011) it must be seen in the widest possible
context, recognizing that we cannot flourish as individuals in
isolation and that our flourishing cannot continue to be at the
expense of other people, other species, or the natural environ-
ment. Thus sustainable happiness and well-being ar e integral to
building sustainable futures, and positive psychology could be
influential in leading research and education that heralds a new
era of understanding and political will to embrace sustainabil-
It is recommended that positive psychologists consider fur-
ther opportunities for integrating sustainability as a theoretical
tenet. More specifically, it is recommended that efforts to inte-
grate positive psychology into formal education explicitly strive
to incorporate sustainability; to augment sustainability educa-
tion; and contribute to teacher education. Sustainable happiness
has been offered as a concept that integrates principles from
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