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Does sustainability need to cheer up?

<p>The science of positive psychology reveals some important lessons for sustainability leaders, especially the need to create a vision of a positive future to move towards.</p>

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.

Image credit: CC license by Jason Hargrove/Flickr

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.

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