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Does being green make you happy?

Niki Harré, senior psychology lecturer, believes so. In the first of our Green Room discussions, she tells us why integrity matters.

Niki Harré, senior psychology lecturer, believes so. In the first of our Green Room discussions, she tells us why integrity matters.  

It’s tempting to believe that happiness lies in a plasma TV, a fashionable outfit or a holiday in the Pacific. I understand why people like these things—I rather like them myself. I also understand why the prospect of a new, sustainable lifestyle brings with it threats to these pleasures, and more. Not only will there be material deprivation, we fear, but also discomfort and reduced freedom of choice.

We are told a sustainable way of life is necessary, that we must all bite the bullet and make sacrifices. This grim conclusion assumes that our current lifestyle optimises human happiness and that a sustainable lifestyle will set us back. Both these assumptions are dubious.

For a start, the values threatened by a sustainable lifestyle almost certainly aren’t as important as we think. Take our desire for material wealth (aka ‘stuff’). The hit we get from something new feels simple (it’s mine, yes!), but is actually a more complex reaction to whatever the product represents to us.

Marketers know this. Instead of advertising products for what they are, they’re aligned to basic human desires. Coke is a classic: you’re buying summer weather, friendship and a hint of sex.

Much as some would like us to believe that endless stuff is important to quality of life, this just isn’t true. More accurately, happiness lies in the fulfilment of the basic desires this stuff represents.

Comfort also seduces us, and we fear its loss. Sometimes, if I’m tossing up between my bike and the car, the car draws me like a magnet. No wind, rain or heavy bag—a little metal room in which I can sit until I arrive at work. But, as we all know, the most comfortable or convenient option is not always the one that produces long-term wellbeing.

When it comes to transport, walking, cycling and getting the bus are not only conducive to physical health but also to social health. Cities in which people are out and about are livelier and more socially connected than those characterised by cars and empty footpaths. TV and pre-packed meals are other modern inventions that are easy and convenient, but not so great for us in large doses.

The third threat often held before us is reduction in choice. Underlying this is fear of restrictions and regulations. Interestingly, however, US psychologist Barry Schwartz has shown that people dislike excessive choice. We certainly want options, but too many options are confusing and time-consuming. Freedom to choose is also pressure to do find the ‘perfect’ solution, a nearly impossible task that can make us miserable. Yes, regulations that favour sustainable products, buildings and so on may reduce our choices, but this is very unlikely to make us less happy.

If endless stuff, comfort and choice are overrated, then what is essential to happiness? Apart from positive social relationships, a second fundamental to happiness is being able to live with integrity—that is, in accordance with who you feel you are and what you feel is right.

It is difficult to be sure why integrity is so important to happiness, but it’s likely to be related to the moral radar we develop as children. In all cultures, children figure out that there are two principles that exist above and beyond the conventions of their society: be fair to others, and do not harm those who have not harmed you first. These principles form the basis of our beliefs about what is right. Moral emotions, such as shame and guilt, signal when we’ve broken these rules.

I believe that once you accept that what we are doing to this planet is an act of unprovoked harm and injustice to future generations (not to mention other living species and many people who are alive today), to ignore this is to deny your integrity. This is likely to be psychologically draining and detract from wellbeing.

Far from being a sacrifice that denies the things that bring you happiness, embracing a more sustainable lifestyle brings the assurance that you are doing what you believe is right—and it’s a far more reliable way to feel good about yourself in the long-term than most. Importantly too, it can bring connection to others who are also trying to create a better world.

These aren’t strange ideals suited only to extremist do-gooders—they are ordinary, human solutions to getting the most out of life.

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