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Catherine O'Brien

Educating for Sustainable Happiness

Date:May 2019

“I would say sustainably happy people are better for the environment. When we really understand that our happiness and well-being are intertwined with the ecosystems that sustain us I think that’s hugely powerful, it’s transformative.”

Interview with Catherine O’Brien

Catherine O’Brien is a professor of education at Cape Breton University and the originator of the term “sustainable happiness. In this exclusive Green Interview, O’Brien speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about her work at the intersection of happiness, sustainable living and education. She is part of a worldwide network of scholars and researchers who are exploring what makes people happy and whether it is linked to ways of living that recognize ecological limits, relationship and interconnectedness. O’Brien’s research has led her to propose that there are techniques for achieving sustainable happiness and that it can be taught. Indeed, she’s written a book on it and developed the world’s first course in it. She contends that behaving in ways that will bring us deep endurable happiness is also good for our families, our communities and indeed for the planet itself.

In this exclusive Green Interview, O’Brien discusses the concept of “sustainable happiness,” techniques she employs in her course to teach it, and how the recognition that happiness and connection with the natural world are intertwined often leads to a truly transformative experience.

In this exclusive interview with Catherine O’Brien we discuss:

Sustainable Happiness

O’Brien is also the originator of the term “sustainable happiness,”
which she defines as “happiness that contributes to individual, community or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations.” She explains that while sustainable happiness is partly about sustaining individual happiness, genuine happiness is not a result of material consumption or navel-gazing, where individuals become too focused on their own individual happiness. O’Brien makes the crucial point that everyone needs to be able to meet their basic needs, but that even those on a low income can be living a life of sustainable happiness: “It doesn’t always mean being at the top end of environmental activism in terms of buying only organic things, or having solar panels on your roof. It can be making other choices or it can be volunteering in your community, it can be growing your own food in your back yard garden. There’s lots of ways where people can be working better at their own health and well-being and contributing to their community.”

How can it be taught?

O’Brien says that in her classes she shows students their choices can contribute to sustainable happiness. “I’ve come to believe that human unhappiness is a major ecological problem and that creating a sustainable world will also create a happier world. In other words, we don’t lose anything when we live more mindfully and responsibly. We actually gain a different but far greater form of wealth,” she tells The Green Interview. O’Brien says that in her courses, when students begin to look at their well-being they realize that their choices are not always beneficial ones. But she says they soon realize that when they change those to “more healthful choices,” they are also often “better for the environment.”

O’Brien says the “formula for sustainable happiness” involves recognizing that we live interdependently, “intertwined with other people, with the air, with the food, with the water” and then combining that with “compassion for yourself and others.” As a result of this insight, O’Brien decided that something she could build into her course to help students recognize this interdependence was to map it: who or what supports their life, who are they connected to, and how do their choices impact others? She says that through this exercise a lot gets “revealed” to them. “I don’t want to tell them how they should live. I want them to discover what choices are going to be meaningful for them…because in the end it actually turns out to be quite liberating to make conscious choices about how you’re living.”

Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-being

O’Brien tells The Green Interview that leading up to her 2016 book Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-being, she began to look at all the ways in which people were saying that the education system needed to change. There were calls for a shift away from the “factory model” that had persisted for some time to encouraging more innovation, entrepreneurship, health promotion, and technology. “These were all siloed kinds of approaches,” she observed, “and it struck me that we needed something far more holistic.” O’Brien saw that sustainable happiness was the link: “it immediately takes away those silos because well-being for all brings us everywhere.”