Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
Who is Teaching Us about Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being?

By Catherine O'Brien • November 17, 2013

Abstract. The growing recognition Who is Teaching Usthat happiness and well-being are intertwined with sustainability is leading to new opportunities for enhancing happiness and well-being, sustainably. The education sector has a critical role in advancing this work but has been slow to incorporate sustainability education and applications of positive psychology. The concept of sustainable happiness (happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations) (O’Brien, 2010a) offers an innovative perspective to re-invigorate sustainability education and shape priorities for 21st century learning – contributing to resilient, sustainable happiness and well-being for all.

Children growing up in North America over the last ten years are being immersed in a culture that is enthralled with happiness. From happy shampoos to happy pet food, commercial products are being associated with happiness. Coca Cola’s “happiness truck” and Cadbury’s campaign to capture the sounds of joy in New Zealand are capitalizing on the popular buzz about happiness. Thousands of books, magazines, blogs and talks shows discuss the secrets to happiness, building on the research from positive psychology and happiness studies. Beyond the pop culture, happiness research has attained sufficient credibility for many governments to acknowledge that happiness and well-being should be considered in the formulation of national policies (CIW, 2009; Helliwell et al, 2012; Stiglitz et al, 2009).

Read more in the Journal of Health, Culture and Society

Of BIG questions in education…

By Chris Adam • November 10, 2013

At a recent world conference of environmental educators, I discussed the notion that institutions of higher education produce much important research, but that it is not balanced with as much important action that make a positive contribution to the community. Where are the Big questions like how do we, as an institution modeling change and meeting societal needs, become carbon neutral in 10 years?, or how do we increase urban agriculture by 25% in our town by the time the incoming cohort of students graduates?, or how do we identify and implement 50 projects on campus that benefit local wildlife, increase biodiversity and act as living labs for students in various disciplines?

BIG questions are complex, interdisciplinary by nature and require considerable problem solving. They involve the deconstruction and construction of ideas, norms and existing societal structures, exactly the creative and critical thinking skills we want in graduating students. In addition, these competencies are imbedded in many subject areas needed to solve BIG questions. In the form of authentic projects, BIG questions promote literacy of all kinds, exercise the action-based research we know lends itself to meaningful learning and builds community through the need for interdisciplinary input.

Because BIG questions are bold, and because engaging youth with modest life experience to tackle any complex challenge is bolder still, these questions can lead to places an institution did not expect to go, create unanticipated responsibilities and turn over stones that some do not necessarily want overturned. However, if bold questions lead to a reflective process where we individually or collectively evaluate our values – the very values that direct behaviour -  then change can take place. This shift in thinking and behaviour must be viewed as positive change that doesn’t dwell on the negative notion of “you didn’t do this properly.” This has far-reaching consequences when evaluating outcomes and maintaining stakeholder engagement.

Positive and fresh outlooks excite people and attract internal and community input.

Managing interpersonal space with strong group facilitation and clear expectations is the difference between big failure and big success in projects. Positive outlooks increase intake of learning by students and increase teacher engagement. Group leadership, therefore, from directors meetings to the smallest student committee, is of the utmost importance to ensure productive outcomes. This is vital in overcoming the potential barriers of regulations, traditions and egos that may not support change.

Colleges and universities are sitting on a human resource that has not been nearly engaged enough to solve the societal, economic and environmental challenges that sustainability education defines itself by.  Research is essential, but too much research and too little action is inexcusable. We can‘t be in an educational rut that fills the information bucket at the expense of community building, polarizes disciplines when solutions scream for integration, and separates knowing from feeling in the classroom. This recipe of education is the breeding ground for apathy. Fortunately, apathy runs for cover where there is hope, and BIG questions entrusted to faculty, support staff and students combined with adequate support builds ample amounts of it!

BIG questions often involve conflict – that is what makes them big.  Well-managed classrooms where students can experience and learn about this conflict is the real-world learning that they benefit from most. We need to let them field-test their action skills and experience the consequences of their behaviour first hand. BIG questions are often moving targets that invariably produce pockets of failure, consequently a dedicated  group connected individually to a challenge can dig deep when needed to continue the process. We need to guide their enthusiasm and deep desire to help, channeling this incredible potential of good will right back into the communities they come from. This is where their loved ones are, where their sense of history is anchored and where memories of childhood adventures are associated to local physical geography. It is an all-powerful relationship that can drive learning forward when it may otherwise stall.

Who is bold enough to pick one of the many BIG questions society needs answered and teach in an institution that is confident enough to let its community take it to academically rich places it hasn’t yet visited? The challenge is ultimately not a question of lack of finances, human resources, or policy, but one of human will and spirit. It’s the challenge that leads to Bold Education.

Chris Adam is the Executive Director of the Earthvalues Institute and teaches at Dawson College in Montreal.


Techno-Fast with a Twist

By Catherine O'Brien • November 3, 2013

It’s a real joy for me to learn from my students and I particularly enjoy the occasions when they bring a creative spirit to their assignments. This term I have a retired teacher, Asta Antoft, in my Sustainable Happiness class. Her experience and wisdom enrich all of us.

As I mentioned in my previous post (Buy Nothing for a Day?), one of the course assignments is to select a Shifting Consumption activity. Asta chose to take a Techno-Fast – with a new twist. Here’s her story.

It has been my experience that most environmental and sustainability education (EE) activities are built on either gaining knowledge, usually through participant observations, of what is going awry, or in seeking solutions, frequently through some version of group brainstorming. Little is included that involves more than token commitment to changing personal behaviours, or of celebrating actual change.

While building awareness and seeking solutions are part of defining and resolving the global issues facing the planet, I believe that this is not enough. Every issue reduces down to the actions of the individual; therefore it is critical that EE includes a relevant component of behaviour change. However just encouraging change is not enough and every activity must include a  defined action plan that can be easily understood and incorporated into an individual’s lifestyle.

With the goal of adding a defined action plan that may lead to a permanent change in my own use of technology, I added an exchange activity to the intent of the Techno-Fast and renamed this project, Fair Trade. First, I listed all the tech gadgets I use. This included the TV, PVR, cell phone, land line phone, microwave, digital cameras, computer, tablet, stereo, radio, blender, paper shredder, hair dryer, auto shut-off kettle, toaster, and the car, which I then sorted by frequency and duration of use. The winners of the most used for the longest time contest were the computer/Internet and the TV/PVR.

At this point I could have decided not to use any of these tools for a day and written this paper on how that felt. But when I reflected on doing just that, I realized that it would be merely an exercise in delayed gratification, that I could easily find some other activity to fill the day that would not use any technology.

So I listed those activities that I really enjoy and that I wanted to spend more time doing. This included drawing, gardening, walking, and photography, most of which have low to nil negative environmental impact. Using a cost based approach, rather than an earned based plan, I gathered a mechanical egg timer and set it beside the computer or TV and gave myself either half an hour or an hour of screen time. At the end of this time I had to spend an equivalent amount of time doing one of the things listed under enjoyment right then and there. I did not allow myself any banking of either screen time or enjoyment time; it had to be a straight trade. I continued with this fair trade activity for two days.

This challenge proved to be more difficult than I thought. Despite having pencil and sketchbook beside the computer, it was challenging to shift from the immediacy of the internet to the slower, more contemplative action of observational drawing. It was an obvious exercise in left to right brain shift! Going from TV time to gardening was much easier.

This project has proven to be a worthwhile exercise in both changing my own patterns of behaviour and in testing out my thoughts on EE.

Asta Antoft

Buy Nothing for a Day?

By Catherine O'Brien • October 24, 2013

One of the assignments in my Sustainable Happiness course is called “Shifting Consumption.” Students select one activity from a variety of choices, including a Buy Nothing Day. This involves, as the name implies, trying to have a single day without purchasing anything. Of course, the easy route is to do this on a day when you are planning to stay home and aren’t tempted to buy anything but students who choose to embrace the spirit of the activity discover that there are quite a few times throughout the day in which they would typically purchase something – either out of habit or on impulse. One of my intentions with this assignment is for students to recognize those opportunities to be a choicemaker and to determine if they really want to make that purchase and if so, to consider if there is a more sustainable choice.

Every year, students who pick the Buy Nothing Day option recount that they thought it would be easier than it was. They also discover that there are benefits from being a more mindful consumer. The story below is from a student, (shared with his permission), who is working most nights to support himself through a Bachelor of Education degree. I’m impressed that he demonstrated considerable willpower even in the wee hours of the morning….

For my Shifting consumption exercise I decided to pick something very easy… so I thought. I’m very busy lately so I chose the “buy nothing day”. Well I picked the wrong day to do it.  I chose Saturday. I get paid every Friday from work and I also put gas in my car every Saturday. I was almost on empty and I was determined not to buy anything. I sent a text to one of my friends to see if they could pick me up for work at 3:50am since I have work at 4:15am. We were both working that day so it wasn’t a problem.

My partner and I have date day on Saturday. We go to dinner and a movie every Saturday and we go different places to eat. I was nervous because Saturday is the only day we get to spend time with each other alone and enjoy our company and I thought she would be disappointed. It ended up being the opposite and we decided to feed the ducks and go for a walk in Glace Bay. It was actually more connecting and we had a really good time.

The hardest part was not buying little things like water at work or breakfast or even a treat during our walk. All in all it wasn’t that bad now that I think of it and I stopped buying snacks on break from class. I put together what Saturday would have cost me and it came to $81.02. I put that money in my savings and my partner and I decided we would cut down on the date nights out and just do it sporadically.  I added it up and I could pay off a loan I have 6 months sooner with an extra payment of $243.06 a month!

End result, this is an excellent activity.

Bold Education

By Catherine O'Brien • October 10, 2013

Last week, my students completed their Sustainable Happiness Footprint Chart. They logged their activities for a day and identified opportunities for enhancing sustainable happiness – contributing to their own wellbeing, the wellbeing of other people, and/or the natural environment. One student commented on a positive choice that she could make, drinking fair trade coffee in a reusable mug, but she also wondered how much of a difference that would really make. It’s a fair question. Given the vast scope and complexity of environmental degradation, human suffering, and unsustainable lifestyles, does it matter if one person recycles, carpools, buys local produce and fair trade products?

One response to questions about the significance of individual actions is to point out that every person doing their part contributes to change, and that gradually, we create enough momentum to reach a tipping point – new social norms become established, progressive policies and laws are developed – and each of us has a role in this. Our actions influence others too, directly or indirectly. Have you noticed the shift happening in your grocery store as more people are using reusable shopping bags? Eventually, plastic bags look like the fringe choice.

Returning to my student’s question, I believe that each of us who take right action make a difference – a substantial and critical difference. Let’s add to her question: is this enough? Should we be satisfied with environmentally friendly lifestyles of recycling, energy-efficient light bulbs, local produce and similar steps to reduce our Ecological Footprint? For many people, this represents a shift from less sustainable behavior and every one of us who makes that shift is a positive force for change.

As a sustainability educator, I keep wondering though, why don’t more of us take these first steps towards healthier, and more sustainable lifestyles? A bigger question still, why aren’t more of us leading movements for change? Small, local movements? National movements? International movements? Why, in a country like Canada, that has an exemplary academic achievement record are we not educating more students who are demanding change from our leaders and “being the change” themselves?

A conversation with the president or our university, Dr. David Wheeler, helped me to think about this. We were discussing the benefits of universities modeling sustainability in policy and practice – identifying themselves as fair trade universities, for example. David is passionately committed to sustainability, with extensive international experience and I was inspired by his response. It went something like this: these are important and vital measures for universities to take but he is also interested in much bolder objectives. Why can’t we be contributing to food self-sufficiency for Cape Breton Island, he said? Why can’t we contribute to strategies that bring food self-sufficiency to other countries that so desperately need this? Essentially, he was stating that higher education institutions need to be much bolder. I agree. The idea of Bold Education appeals me. Imagine the transformations that would be possible if more universities demonstrated bold leadership for sustainability. More professors applied their expertise to resolve pressing social and environmental challenges? More principals and teachers met curriculum outcomes using methods that inspire students to appreciate the need for change and the fulfillment that comes from “being the change?”

It’s no longer a debate whether or not education reform is needed. It’s widely recognized that transformation is required to modernize education, to foster creativity and entrepreneurship, to focus on student (and teacher) wellbeing and simultaneously ensure that academic standards are maintained, or elevated.  These increasing demands on educators can be daunting and sustainability education tends to drop off the radar because most reform proponents aren’t quite clear about how it fits. My concern is that without the benefit of a bold and long term sustainability lens education reformers will be tinkering at the edges of what really needs to change. We may end up with happier, and more ‘successful’ students who are unlikely to challenge the business-as-usual lifestyles, policies and practice that relentlessly steer us individually and collectively on an unsustainable trajectory.

Conversely, when I envision Bold Education I see several overlapping perspectives finally merging into a transformative approach to education. I see the strengths of Education for Sustainability (some prefer Education for Sustainable Development) merging with Health Promoting Schools, social and emotional learning, entrepreneurship education, and 21st century learning competencies. I see education processes that inspire, rather than beleaguer, teachers and students – education that contributes to sustainable happiness and wellbeing for all.

Bicycle Music Festival

By Catherine O'Brien • September 10, 2013

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The Toronto Bicycle Music festival is a yearly series of free outdoor pedal-powered concerts taking place in and between our city’s great community parks and streets.

This, my friends, is a glorious example of bringing sustainable happiness to life!

Watch this great video of pedal-powered music, smoothies, and fun!  It will make you want to create this in your city, town or school!

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My Sister’s Time Machine

By Catherine O'Brien • September 3, 2013

Time Machine

It’s remarkable to imagine that my sister and I have shared more than fifty summers together! As children, there were long, lazy days on our makeshift raft, the Leaking Lena, paddling down the creek, playing with the fairies, or exploring the woods.  Time had a different pace back then.  We read comic books for hours and whiled away rainy afternoons playing monopoly. There were fishing trips and campfires, or just exploring shells on the beach.

While the days and weeks flow more quickly now, my sister discovered a secret for slowing time and I will be forever grateful that she shared that secret with me – long distance swimming. Those measured, rhythmic strokes bring on a meditative mind and openness to the moment.  No wonder she can be found on the dock in the early morning when the lake is most still and she slips into a gentle harmony with the world.

I treasure our swims together, especially when, along with our brother, Larry, we surge into the water, heading for ‘the point,’ a spit of land that juts out a kilometre away.  Once there, we pause, enjoy the scenery and often set a leisurely pace as we return, enjoying our conversations. There was magic in the air on our last swim this summer, with mist still on the water and loons majestically gliding nearby.

For me, this state of flow is found in swimming though each of us have our own access to the time machine – cycling, playing music, running, dancing, carpentry, solving equations, painting … What’s yours?

My Italian Summer

By Catherine O'Brien • August 26, 2013

Last month, I read Under the Tuscan Sun. It conjured up images of terraced hills and vineyards basking in warm, golden sunlight.  Moving to an Italian villa in Tuscany is beyond our means so while I could dream about a summer in Italy it would inevitably remain just a lovely fantasy.  However, the book also recounts the joys of Italian cooking with pasta, tomatoes, olives and, of course, wine.  Imagining this food transported me to a mouthwatering, delicious heaven and sparked one of my most enjoyable summer projects!

When I look out my kitchen window I don’t see the hills of Tuscany – no matter, because the smells and flavours of Italian food have captured my senses and filled my home.  You see, I decided to have an Italian summer, immersing myself in Italian cooking, primed with The Tuscan Sun cookbook. Tuscan Sun CookbookWe’ve made home-made pizzas, Italian bread, focaccia, peppers with ricotta and basil, and insalata caprese. We adapted pasta carbonara by replacing bacon with sun-dried tomatoes. Tomorrow, I’ll try eggplant parmigiana. My Italian summer is inspiring appetizing contributions from many of our friends and relatives. Our friend, Claude, caught the spirit of our Italian summer and whipped up a mango and tomato salad he heard about from his Italian barber in Montreal.

I’ve realized that I’m finally doing something that I’ve been wanting to do for many, many years – just giving myself over to something entirely new and fun. I am cooking dishes that aren’t just about getting food on the table.  Italian cuisine is about savouring every step along the way – in every delicious unhurried moment – it’s about discovering and creating novel recipes where food preparation becomes an adventure.  Meanwhile, I’ve found the ingredients are so basic and simple that our grocery bill hasn’t risen. The best part has been cooking with friends and lingering over a table of scrumptious, homemade meals, and a bottle of wine.

Apple Pie

By Catherine O'Brien • August 19, 2013

I was inspired yesterday to make an apple pie from scratch. The inspiration came from harvesting apples from our tree.

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They aren’t the perfect, polished apples you see in the grocery store.There a some scabs and the occasional worm hole but we can cut around those and keep the good bits. The smell of the pie cooking was intoxicating and I could hardly wait to dab some ice cream on the warm slices I cut for myself and my husband, Ian. What an amazing feeling of contentment, and yes, happiness, to eat a dessert that came from our own tree.

Part of this contentment is my appreciation for the foresight my husband has had over the years to plant apple, pear, cherry, and apricot trees in our yard. He says, that he did it primarily because he loves to see the blossoms in the spring. It’s a cliché, but it really does feel like yesterday, that he dug the hole ten years ago for our first fruit tree.  He has carefully watered and nurtured all the trees and now we have the benefit of cherry jam, pear preserves and apple pie!

It’s not just us who benefits (we share, of course!). My sisters and brothers picked baskets of cherries when they were ripe last month and I soaked cherries in rum for my sister’s 60th birthday celebration. As I’m writing, I know it sounds Disneyesque, but there are two humming birds hovering at the pear tree, robins and blue jays have snagged the cherries that we left on the tree for them, and last week we watched a rabbit reaching up on it’s hind legs to grasp one of the apples. I honestly had no sense of this web of interconnection and sustainable happiness that was being set in motion years ago but I highly recommend it! If you can plant some trees, a vegetable garden, or even some herbs on a balcony, it’s tremendously satisfying to eat food that you have grown yourself (or that someone has grown for you!).

School Bus Farmers’ Market

By Catherine O'Brien • August 6, 2013

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Every time I come across an innovative food initiative I feel a tremendous surge of excitement and optimism. Perhaps it’s because food is a basic need and food self-reliance is so fundamental. Last May, I wrote about the inspiring story of Todmorden’s Incredible Edible. It’s encouraging to realize that an entire community has worked together to plant herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. I particularly like the idea of commuters picking herbs at the end of the day as they disembark at the train station!

The schoolyard market garden in Vancouver is a model that every school could follow. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures such as Peaceful Belly, establish relationships between farmers and consumers that contribute to sustainable wellbeing.

Here’s another one: A Farmers’ Market in a School Bus! Tanya Fields has decided to meet the challenge of food hardship in the South Bronx by bringing the market to the neighbourhood. The full story is told by Stan Alcorn at Fast Company.

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