Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
By Patrick Howard • March 24, 2014
I have always been aware of a sense of self that was anomalous. At times, I have been acutely aware of my incongruous interests, but most often this incongruity was latent, manifesting itself as a tremulous tension subtly tugging the sinews of my being. I loved libraries and books. As a child I would hide in the towering stacks of the small public library lulled by the smell of books, and quietly trace my fingers along the book spines as I moved along. There was something profound about it all.
Under the spell of spines is the way I like to think of it now. Clumsy fingers thumping along the vertical rows of neatly ordered books. A title, an illustration catches the eye and the book goes to the floor. Cowboys, dragons, knights and animals – always animals. Later, around age ten or twelve, it was science, or more aptly, natural history, archaeology and paleontology that became my passion. The words, the illustrations, the drawings drew me in, and at the same time drew me out – outside, out-of-doors.
My mother tells of her frustration in taking her toddler for walks. Every twig, stone and leaf was handled, examined and collected. Crouching motionless by a mud puddle I have faint memories of stirring watery cumulus clouds of silt in endless wonder; my mother’s patience would sag. Later, I collected insects and spiders in white plastic ice cream containers. Caterpillars and sow bugs, crane flies and ants – always ants – two varieties – red and black. Many summer afternoons were spent staring into the writhing mass as an emperor surveys his Coliseum. The small wood behind our house was my world. I knew the spiders and supplied their webs with hapless flies. I marveled at the spiders’ speed, agility and the beauty of their silken and deadly designs.
Later, I was permitted to venture to the ocean’s edge spending countless hours on the community wharf steeped in the smell of brine and tar staring into the depths until the reflected sun hurt my head. In the tide pools, seas in miniature, sponges encrust the rocks, each hungrily drawing in through its myriad mouths the nutrient-laden water. Starfish, sea anemones and prickly urchins were common. In these pools I stooped and spent the day until the chill of the North Atlantic anesthetized my feet and lower legs. But I did not notice, for once again, I am a child under the spell of spines of a different order.
Inevitably, the science of my childhood, of collecting and observing, of imagination and wonder was replaced by another kind of science – the science of the academy, of middle and high school. It was a science of abstraction and generalization far removed from my experience. I lost interest and drifted away. I pursued my love of literature into the English classroom and relegated the spiders and tide pools to the stuff of childhood. Childhood wonder banished to the attic of my life.
Science reduces; reductionism is invaluable to scientists; it is what they do. It is indispensable to all of us. As Wendell Berry reminds us, there are times we must know the composition of things, how they hang together, what laws and principles govern their behaviour. But most often what happens in dissecting the owl pellet is that the owl disappears, the mouse that was her meal disappears. In the quest for empirical certainty, in reducing an entity, a species to its constituent parts, it disappears in abstraction. The creature, the being is lost – the individual and the unique are lost. The trees are lost to “forestry,” the skeins of fog and misty droplets to the “water cycle.” In a sense, life is lost. Science cannot show the life in the life cycle of the owl. Its life is a wholeness inherent in its totality of experience in a place. Yet, our children need this connection to keep the inherent wonder of childhood alive and to strengthen the affiliation with the living world that comes naturally to them.
Things cannot survive as abstractions, but only as unique, individual creatures, entities living in place. We must find ways to infuse our science with poetry and our poetry with science, to build on the natural wonder of children and immerse them in the life and mystery of the places they call home.Patrick Howard is a professor of Education at Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia. He is interested in the intersections between language arts, literacy and Education for Sustainability. To contact go to; patrickhoward.ca
By Catherine O'Brien • March 23, 2014
“Happiness that contributes to individual, community, and/or global wellbeing and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.” (O’Brien, 2010)
Sustainable happiness links happiness and sustainability together. It reinforces the fact that we are interdependent with one another and the natural environment – that our mutual wellbeing is interconnected. It can also be used as a roadmap to explore what truly makes your heart sing.
Rick Foster and Greg Hicks (authors of How We Choose to Be Happy), who interviewed hundreds of very happy people, found that the happiest people know what makes their heart sing and they consciously weave this into their life. For example, if you enjoy going for a walk in a wooded area, make time to do so as often as possible because this is something that replenishes you. Rick, Greg and I have teamed up to offer workshops and courses and the Happy List is adapted from an activity they created. (We also co-developed an online course on sustainable happiness, along with film maker, Ian Murray).
Your Happy List
Some people like to set a timer for the Happy List activity. If that appeals to you, set one for four minutes.
When you’re ready, with a piece of paper and a pen, start making a list of all the things, people, places and activities, that make you feel happy. Just speedwrite without censoring yourself. Let the ideas flow until the time is up, or beyond. If you still have more to add keeping writing even after the timer goes off!
Once you’re done, take a look over your list and revel in what makes your heart sing.
Then, consider if there is anything on your list that you are already doing and things that you would like to do more often, integrating your Happy List more fully into your lifestyle.
You can refine your list to be a Sustainable Happiness List by reflecting on those things listed that make you feel happy but may not be contributing to your wellbeing, or possibly even harming other people and the environment. For example, some people enjoy taking a long drive. They find it relaxing. However, we know that most of our motorized vehicle emissions are destructive to human and environmental health. With sustainability in mind, we ought to be reducing car travel. Consequently, it would be beneficial to develop other options for relaxation.
If you are interested in cultivating your Sustainable Happiness List, recreate the list with only those things (and some new ones if you like) that contribute to sustainable happiness. You may want to post this on your fridge as a reminder of your commitment to sustainable happiness.
(Excerpt from Lessons in Sustainable Happiness)
By Catherine O'Brien • March 11, 2014
On March 20th people across the globe will celebrate the International Day of Happiness! Some may hear about the day and lump it into the happiness buzz that emanates from advertisements, blogs, books, magazine ads and talk shows that promote the secrets to happiness. However, the event grew from the UN Resolution on Happiness and Wellbeing – a resolution that was endorsed unanimously by UN member states. Beyond the pop culture, happiness research has attained sufficient credibility for many governments to acknowledge that happiness and wellbeing should be considered in the formulation of national policies.
Cities are looking at opportunities to boast that they are the happiest city and many are trying to determine how to enhance the happiness of their residents. There are serious attempts to interpret the implications of research about social engagement, trusting neighbours, liveable cities, walkable communities, and access to natural environments with the aim of planning for happiness and wellbeing. These efforts will be further advanced when municipalities examine their policy and practice through the lens of sustainable happiness – considering how to build sustainable prosperity so that the happiness and wellbeing of their communities have not come at the expense of exploiting other people, the environment, or future generations. Copenhagen is a world leader, demonstrating that a high quality of life can be achieved with sustainable lifestyles. This Streetfilms video shows us how!
The International Day of Happiness provides the impetus for deeper conversations about the role of happiness and wellbeing in our lives and our schools. 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 fascination with happiness. Is this the only source of education about happiness that we want for our youth? What counterpoint are schools offering? How can we assist students to differentiate commercialized happiness from the kind of happiness that leads to enduring life satisfaction?
Formal education curricula are transitioning to adapt 21st Century learning competencies but most schools are not yet teaching students about positive psychology and the lessons from happiness research. Yet, concerns about student mental health in K-12, colleges and universities suggest that we need to offer more instruction about mental wellbeing, resilience and happiness skills. I believe that incorporating sustainable happiness into formal education would assist students (and teachers) to appreciate that our happiness and wellbeing are interconnected with the happiness and wellbeing of other people and the natural environment. We can create experiential learning opportunities for children and youth to explore what happiness means to them (and that happiness is not the only acceptable emotion), how happiness is portrayed in the media, and how their daily choices contribute to, or detract from, the happiness and wellbeing of other people. They can discover new options for living happily and sustainably.
Many educators have shared inspiring stories about the lessons they have used from the Sustainable Happiness and Health Education teachers guide. It’s an ideal (free) resource that can be used to involve students in the International Day of Happiness. Please tell your teacher friends!
For higher education instructors, I encourage you to view the syllabus for the sustainable happiness course that I teach at Cape Breton University. Many of the course activities are also available on the University tab of this web site. College students are signing up for the online sustainable happiness course and using the Directed Study Guide to accompany their learning journey.
By Catherine O'Brien • November 26, 2013
In a previous blog post I shared the inspiring story of the Schoolyard Market Garden, a collaborative project between Vancouver Technical Secondary and Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society. The garden is an example of the kind of education that models Living Schools, an essential concept to consider for anyone who is interested in reforming or transforming education. Living Schools can integrate the many progressive visions for revitalizing education – Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), 21st century learning, Health Promoting Schools, entrepreneurship education, social and emotional learning, along with a creative culture that nurtures the passions of children and teachers.
Through this one schoolyard garden project students learn practical skills that help them feel connected to the community and nature, and that connection is likely to bring an experience of well-being. They are actively engaged in a healthy endeavor that teaches them about sustainable lifestyles. As a market garden, they’ll learn entrepreneurship skills. The project is also complex enough to draw upon diverse learning styles and passions, from construction to promotion. And they spend time outside!
This schoolyard market garden is not an isolated example. David Thompson Secondary also launched a garden last spring, working with the Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society. In Australia, there is a Living Schools organization. In Europe, the Living Schools Lab explores applications of information and communication technology (ICT) for social learning. It’s a network of 12 Ministries of Education.
Why Living Schools?
I hear almost daily from teachers, administrators and education consultants that there is an urgent need to create more positive and innovative school cultures. They ponder questions about 21st century education – what education practices ought be retained? What new ones are needed?
It’s evident that a transformation of education is essential, for the benefit of our students and for society. It’s daunting for teacher education institutions, educators and administrators to determine what vision to follow. If we embrace 21st century learning competencies we will supposedly prepare our students to be successful and competitive in a rapidly changing global context. Yet these competencies don’t always embrace sustainability in the vision. One could argue that a 21st century learning vision without ESD would be modernizing education to support an unsustainable trajectory. Furthermore, teachers are reporting increasing incidences of student mental health challenges and struggle with concerns such as bullying, substance abuse, and anxiety. The need for preventive measures is paramount and the exemplary work of Health Promoting Schools (HPS) offers a valuable framework and resources. In Canada, the Joint Consortium for School Health developed a Positive Mental Health Toolkit for educators to assess and plan for positive school health.
How could educators possibly implement all of the diverse visions for transforming education? Each one on its own has tremendous merit but no single one addresses all of the factors that must be considered if education is going to genuinely contribute to student well-being and sustainable societies.
My recommendation is for educators and education policy to find the ideal nexus where these diverse principles, competencies and visions converge. Living Schools illustrates how this can happen and how this is already happening. You likely have examples of a Living Schools initiative in your region (even though it may not have that label). Please share those with me and I’ll spread the word. Email: email@example.com.
By Catherine O'Brien • November 17, 2013
Abstract. The growing recognition that 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Catherine O'Brien • September 10, 2013
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!