Does sustainability need to cheer up?

Seeking to discover what benefit positive emotions serve, researchers including Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina developed the “Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotion. They found that positive emotions serve two functions, both of which should be of interest to sustainability professionals:

  • Positive emotions broaden cognition and behavior. In other words, being in a state of positive emotion allows us to see more possibilities and we’re more capable of contextual thinking -- a useful quality whether looking for answers to intractable, systems-based problems or simply trying to brainstorm solutions to the latest corporate challenge.
  • Positive emotions also serve to build a “reservoir” of psychological capital -- things such as problem solving ability, social connection and personal resilience. The important point is that it’s capital that one can build up over time and draw on in times of need. In a world looking increasingly unpredictable, having a stock of resilience might be useful.

The same applies to organizations. Research at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan looks at what’s positive in organizations and the people who comprise them. They find that, typically, “normal” organizations tend to react to constraints, fail to see opportunities and fail to learn. Positive organizations, on the other hand, are able to envision new possibilities, expand the resource pool and learn through experimentation. These organizations exhibit “positive deviance.” An entire chapter in the Handbook for Positive Organizational Scholarship is devoted to exploring “Positive Deviance for a Sustainable World.”

The answer is not unbridled optimism. Research would suggest that you’d rather have a pessimist than a gushing optimist as your airline mechanic. Likewise, we need people recognizing and sounding the alarm on risks and important sustainability issues.

But the lesson from positive psychology is that we also need an equal balance of positivity (it’s actually more like a three-to-one ratio, in fact). In the work of sustainability, which quickly offers up issues for our worrying brains to grab onto, an active choice to nurture positivity can offer some valuable benefits.

Goals around zero carbon or zero waste are important, but we also need organizations and sustainability leaders to offer a positive vision to move towards. One example is Kingfisher’s Net Positive approach, which speaks about issues including global net reforestation and homes as net generators of energy.

Martin Seligman has said of positive psychology that it’s ultimately about being “pulled by the future,” and sustainability is by definition about creating a future to move towards. Perhaps the concept of flourishing not only provides us with some additional tools for creating that future, but, as Ehrenfeld proposes, also the condition that we would want to sustain in the first place.