Does sustainability need to cheer up?

Earth Day 2013 came and went in April with the usual fanfare of green festivals, volunteer programs, company campaigns and reflections on the question, “How are we doing, anyway?” On this last point, the answer this year seemed to be a somewhat lukewarm, “Well…we’ve been better.”

Certainly, we see a steady stream of what might be considered discouraging news. A sampling from just last month included a pessimistic outlook in Jeremy Grantham’s Q1 letter to investors, updates on the factory collapse in Bangladesh, new data on honey bee colony collapse, spiraling loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and global food shortages. To be fair, just as surely there are hopeful stories and a lot of good work being done. But the point is that those of us working in the sustainability realm, or frankly anyone taking a systems view on global topics, must grapple with some daunting issues that easily could lead to a doom-and-gloom perspective.

Is the solution to buck up, put on a happy face and simply forge ahead? The answer seems to be yes -- and no.

In their latest book, “Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability,” John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman explore a definition of sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” They ask an important but mostly overlooked question: What is it that we’re trying to sustain in the first place? The answer for Ehrenfeld is flourishing -- “a workable metaphor for the bundle of things that make life worth living and produce well being.”

The growing field of positive psychology has a lot to say about flourishing. Its founder, Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, defines positive psychology as “the scientific study of optimal human functioning, which aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.” In his 2011 book, "Flourish," Seligman offers a model of wellbeing that goes beyond simply just happiness. Known as PERMA, the model includes:

  • Positivity -- optimism, happiness and life-satisfaction
  • Engagement -- mindfulness, strengths and flow
  • Relationships -- kindness, altruism and meaningful connection
  • Meaning -- purpose, passion and fulfillment
  • Achievement -- motivation, accomplishment and inspired action

What might PERMA have to offer sustainability?

Quite a lot, in fact, but perhaps the most widely studied element in PERMA is positivity. The research here reveals a long list of benefits from “positive affect,” including improved performance, more creativity, better sleep, less illness and even longer life. The trick is that we’re actually wired to worry. Research shows that negative emotions narrow our attention and prepare us for quick action. Our ancestors who were able to anticipate and focus quickly on immediate danger lived to pass on the trait. And we should thank them, because it’s a useful trait.

Next page: The benefits of positivity

Image credit: CC license by Jason Hargrove/Flickr