The Science of Happiness, Voluntary Simplicity & Ecological Sustainability 

Towards a Mental Health-Based Framework for the Promotion of Sustainable Lifestyles and Ecologically Responsible Behaviors

The human species has reached a point in history at which anthropogenic environmental degradation is occurring at an alarming rate and scale: natural resource depletion, pollution, species extinction, climate change, and overpopulation are dominating global concerns.  The search for a sustainable relationship with the Earth has taken on new dimensions and a sense of urgency as the human-induced environmental crisis threatens the rich tapestry of biodiversity central to our planet’s ecological foundations.

Few, if any, environmental problems can be addressed by scientific, technological, or public policy solutions alone.  Although political factors have played a defining role in developing the current crisis, broader philosophical views of the human place in nature, in addition to the human behavioral norms that reflect them, are responsible for its creation.

Unfortunately, environmental activists and scientists focus most of their energy dealing with short-term, “band-aid” solutions to society’s ecological disasters.  Whereas this approach has been largely born out of necessity, it is also akin to a doctor treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the disease itself.  Although significant progress has been made on the scientific, policy and technology fronts, the continued rampant pace of economic development and global consumption patterns associated with it are outpacing advancements that have been made.

This research focuses on one dimension of the fundamental environmental management problem we face: the behavioral aspects of humanity’s troubled relationship with the natural environment, as opposed to the symptoms of that problem (i.e. global warming, deforestation or over-fishing).

Unsustainable human behaviors are at the heart of our environmental crisis.  Therefore, it would seem prudent to incorporate the field of psychology under the umbrella of environmental studies and sustainability science.

The aim of this psychological research in particular is to discern the relationship between Voluntary Simplicity (VS) practice/behavior and happiness (or “subjective well-being,” SWB) at the individual level of analysis.  Through the triangulation of a range of research methodologies, the following question is examined: On average, do Americans who practice Voluntary Simplicity experience higher levels of subjective well-being than the average American?

In addition, the relationship between VS and socio-economic localization to global ecological sustainability is analyzed.  Specifically, this research explores the relationship between VS,  Ecologically Responsible Behavior (ERB), and Sustainable Lifestyles (SL).

The implications of any positive correlation between the three for global ecological sustainability are extensive.  For many, the ability of VS to help address the global environmental crisis is “direct and obvious.  To the extent that we choose to live more lightly on the Earth in a material sense, we greatly reduce resource depletion, energy use, and habitat destruction.  The easiest and least expensive way to prevent pollution is to never create it in the first place.  Voluntary simplicity is a very ‘simple,’ low-tech, individualized way of doing this.  Anyone can understand it.  Everyone can apply it.  Its practice can be shaped and ‘sized’ to fit each person’s way of life, family responsibilities, and geographic location.  It requires no new technological developments.  It is equally accessible to all people.  It costs nothing” (Burch, Mark A. Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet. Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers, 2000.).

If this research can demonstrate that, by choosing Voluntary Simplicity, one can lead a happier and more sustainable lifestyle beneficial to oneself, society, and the planet, these findings may form the basis of a new, mental health-based frame through which sustainability (and, in particular, sustainable lifestyles and behaviors) can be effectively promoted.  This, in turn, will increase the likelihood of a broader paradigm shift from a society of conspicuous consumption towards a society of sufficiency and enoughness.

If a psychological well-being frame can be developed, based on this research, to help link the concept of “happiness” with that of “sustainability,” environmental scientists, managers, and policy makers may be better equipped to communicate with and persuade a far wider and more diverse audience than the one currently accessible through the predominant ethical and economic frames employed at present.

This, in turn, will help help inform the fields of environmental science, management, and policy by advancing fundamental, positive, and socio-ecologically critical shifts in individual, social, political, and economic attitudes and behaviors towards the natural environment.

This research represents one small step in that direction.