Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
Sustainable Well-Being and Well-Being for All

By Catherine O'Brien • June 14, 2017

Drawing upon feedback from more than 80 educators, I have developed a Sustainable Well-Being (SWB) framework that draws upon the characters strengths and leadership literature. However, most of that literature does not explicitly reference how the actions/behaviour that arise from various character strengths impact other people or the natural environment. Previous frameworks tend to overlook the interconnections across these domains. Additionally, reviewing the well-being literature revealed that there could be a natural synergy between our character, the choices that we make on a daily basis (actions/behaviour) and the consequences for individual, community, and global well-being. However, most well-being frameworks overlook how individual well-being intersects with the well-being of ecosystems. The models are very anthropocentric.

Sustainable well-being (SWB) builds on previous work on sustainable happiness (O’Brien, 2016) which is defined as “happiness that contributes to individual, community or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment, or future generations” (p. 1). This concretely links happiness, well-being and sustainability. The importance of doing so has been reinforced in the Sustainable Happiness Report by the Danish Happiness Research Institute (2015).

But perhaps the connection between sustainability and happiness is best illustrated by the concept
of “sustainable happiness,” which was coined by Catherine O’Brien, an associate professor of education at Cape Breton University, in Canada. Sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community, or global well-being without the exploitation of other people, the environment, or future generations. When perceived this way, it is no longer possible to imagine a future where the pursuit of happiness is not somehow connected to sustainability. As the human species continues its quest for happiness and well-being, more emphasis must be placed on sustainability and the interaction between sustainability and happiness. (Happiness Research Institute, 2015, p. 16)

As I developed the SWB diagram, I aimed to reflect the dynamic interface between all these aspects of well-being by making the circles permeable (dotted lines). Also, by having the various ‘attributes’ floating within one circle rather than having each one contained separately. In reality, the dimensions and circles are not distinct. Trying to determine what ‘attribute’ belonged and what descriptors belonged with each attribute was, to some extent arbitrary. I could see, for example, placing ‘flexible’ in growth mindset – and perhaps it fits better there. I inserted accountability into “Just” to ensure that when we are accountable it is with this perspective, not just being accountable when in fact we should not be accountable (because we are contributing to unsustainable organizations for example).

Sustainable Well-Being Model copy

The following section provides further information about each of the attributes.

Sustainable Well-Being – This includes physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Humanity –A natural assumption might be that words such as ‘compassion’ or ‘empathy’ are directly solely towards other humans but my intention is to suggest that all of the elements are applicable to people, including one’s self, and ‘other than human’ beings – and that our humanity will be enhanced by living this.

Passion –Looking at Tony Wagner’s (2012) work on innovation, he found that play, passion, and purpose were essential for innovation. Robinson’s and Aronica’s (2009) work also reinforces the role of passion. This is further reinforced by Maiers and Sandvold (2013) in their avocation for passion-driven classrooms.

Humility – most of the terms here are pretty self-explanatory. I included interconnected because I think that understanding that we are interconnected with others and Nature requires humility. Understanding that we can learn from Nature requires humility.

Integrity – This is a term that arises any time I have asked people to describe someone who has good character. I inserted ‘ecological integrity’ to reinforce perspectives from the Earth Charter and also to underscore the notion that we need to act with integrity towards the biosphere. Honesty is also an important attribute named in indigenous teachings such as the Seven Grandfather teachings (Georgian College Aboriginal Resource Centre, 2014). Congruent is there to reflect the idea that it is important to have congruency between who we are and how we live.

Courage – in addition to other descriptions that have been used for courage, I thought it would be interesting to add ‘adventurous’ to capture a sense of taking risks – in a variety of ways. Being willing to fail and try again, trying something new, and so forth. The other terms related to courage in character models such as the Peterson and Seligman (2004) classification seem more ‘dutiful’ in a way. I have deliberately not included “grit” which always strikes me as a term that conjures up American Western movies.

Focus – In my first iteration of the diagram, this was called Tranquility, to offset Passion. This is one attempt to bring in a more Eastern perspective.

Growth Mindset – This is clearly a term from Carol Dweck (2006) and I used it here to try to capture many of the attributes that we have seen included in other character discussions. I was also considering that one of the key barriers to change in organizations seems to be the individuals who want to preserve the status quo and place obstacles in the way of positive change. They tend to be problem-focused, rather than solution-focused. I believe the same thing happens for individuals who get “stuck” by a life challenge because they have not learned how to generate options to move forward.

Just – A number of people suggested that Just is more appropriate than Justice. The elements here are self-explanatory.

Outer Circles – The outer circles indicate that our well-being is interconnected with the well-being of others and ecological well-being. Our choices impact their well-being and their well-being impacts us. One drawback to this arrangement is that it can appear that ecological well-being is on the outside, separate from us. Rather than thinking of the circle as the outer rim, it would be best to think of each circle embedded within one another so that we are embedded in the well-being of others and Nature – and they are embedded in us.



Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House .

Georgian College Aboriginal Resource Centre. (2014). Ojibwe teachings – 7 Grandfather Teachings. Retrieved 11 15, 2016, from Anishnaabeg Bimaadiziwin: An Ojibwe People’s Resource:–the-7-grandfathers.html

Happiness Research Institute (2015). Sustainable happiness report: Why waste prevention may lead to an increased quality of life. Happiness Research Institute and Danish Ministry of the Environment, Copenhagen.

Maiers, A., & Sandvold, A. (2013). The passion-driven classroom: A framework for teaching and learning. New York: Routledge.

O’Brien, C. (2016). Education for sustainable happiness and well-being. New York: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking.

Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Toronto: Scribner.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *