Today’s article is by my friend and fellow University of Pennsylvania MAPP graduate, David M. Carter. David specializes in the psychology of behavior change towards more environmentally sustainable lifestyles. I am inspired by the impact David makes on the world through his writing and speaking, promoting the theories and research discoveries in positive psychology that can foster behavioral change toward greater earth stewardship. David teaches us how positive psychology and earth stewardship go hand in hand since human and planetary wellbeing are inextricably connected. Enjoy . . .
Worldwide data are plentiful showing that happiness and well-being are connected to material wealth only up to a point. Once basic needs are met, people do not report being significantly happier no matter how much money they have to spend. This is an important lever in the battle for the health of the Earth – if we can convince people that they will not be any happier even after achieving great wealth, we could potentially put the brakes on rampant consumerism and the natural resource devastation it causes. Sadly, since consumerism is the cash cow of the developed world, questioning its relevance to human well-being is often treated with disdain.
Comparing reported wellbeing with carbon footprint gives us an even clearer picture. There is less of an association between well-being and carbon footprint than between well-being and income. This provides deeper proof of the disconnection between high levels of consumption and human flourishing.
Information like this gives me a deep feeling of hope. If well-being and carbon footprint data were well correlated, then there would be good reason for despair. It would mean that real sacrifice is required to alleviate climate change. But the opposite appears to be true – we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint without jeopardizing our well-being. In fact, we can increase our well-being by simplifying our lives, consuming less, connecting with the natural environment, and working together to overcome climate change issues.
One of the goals of the founder of positive psychology, Martin E. P. Seligman, is to “increase the tonnage of happiness in the world”. Further, Seligman is hopeful that we can increase the percentage of the world population considered to be flourishing from 16% today to 51% by 2051. These are honorable goals. The trouble is that, if we continue to emit carbon to the extent that we do today, by 2051 the world will be much less habitable. For many species, some on whom we depend for survival, the world will be completely inhabitable. Severe droughts will be commonplace. Planetary water levels will be devastating communities. And species extinctions will challenge our ability to grow food and combat disease.
If carbon emissions are not substantially reduced, over time it will become more and more difficult to increase human well-being through the applied power of positive psychology. It will be one step forward and two steps back. The fact of the matter is that the effectiveness of positive psychology to improve human flourishing will be undermined by the increasing negative impacts of climate change. It makes little sense to continue to promote and practice effective positive interventions without taking into account the ways in which climate change impacts could be mitigated at the same time.
This is a tremendous opportunity. Frankly, it will require some rethinking about how we go about our work. For example, to the extent that our work encourages higher levels of resource consumption, we are doing ourselves and humanity a big disservice. We must recognize that flourishing is not synonymous with acquisitiveness. Fortunately, the leading edge of positive psychology (e.g. positive health, mindfulness, social contagion) is revealing effective positive interventions that allow mutual human and environmental flourishing.
Positive psychology has everything to do with climate change. We cannot achieve the levels of human flourishing that we desire without figuring out how to integrate the most hopeful and effective positive interventions with climate change reduction strategies, such as reduced levels of consumption, more localized economies, and rapid transition away from fossil fuel dependence.
The best and most inspiring news is that there are very strong direct links between living lightly on the planet and maximizing our ability to flourish. This should not be surprising. How can we expect to continue devastating the living system on which we all depend and expect to be able to thrive and flourish? Of course, it is possible that the lucky few could thrive and flourish at the expense of the billions suffering from the devastating impacts of climate change. As time goes by, and climate change exacerbates, the privileged become fewer and fewer and the devastated become more and more.
Perhaps most importantly, as our environment becomes unsustainable, positive psychology becomes unsustainable. Climate change is indeed an “inconvenient truth”. But the truth that climate change is having a strongly detrimental impact on our ability to flourish cannot be ignored. We must find ways to thrive and flourish within the constraints of the living system on which we all depend – our mental and physical health is dependent on the health of our environment. If we wish to achieve 51% flourishing by 2051, we can no longer ignore this fact. It is time for every practitioner in positive psychology to work toward improving planetary health while, at the same time, working to achieve the highest levels of human flourishing for as many people as possible.