“There is a world of difference between wellbeing and being well off.”
Stefan Klein, The Science of Happiness
“For this generation, ours, …the pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants.”
As a prism reveals the constituent, intermingled colors that comprise visible light, so the four cardinal points of a compass, N, E, S, and W, represent the four intermingled aspects of sustainability: Nature, Economy, Society, and individual Wellbeing.
Starting this month through May, we will each address one point of the Sustainability Compass. This month we will focus on Wellbeing, and mostly wellbeing at the level of the individual. Next month this column will tackle societal conditions that contribute to wellbeing when the subject will be the Economy and sustainability.
Wellbeing. Isn’t this ultimately what we all are striving to achieve through our individual and collective efforts every day? Outcomes such as happiness, health, good relationships, a sense of belonging, quality of life, meaning, accomplishment, worth, life satisfaction?
Because wellbeing is so important, it’s worth exploring what nurtures wellbeing in individuals and society. How do we achieve wellbeing? Where should we focus our attention, efforts, and aspirations? How do we even measure wellbeing? And how does our individual wellbeing contribute to a more vital, rich, flourishing (sustainable) world?
I think Martin Seligman, Stefan Klein, and others offer some insights.
Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at Penn, has come up in this column before. He is a founder of positive psychology, and his book Flourish, A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing offers five measures of wellbeing: positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. You can learn more about them and positive psychology at his website.
Physicist Stefan Klein specializes in writing about science in understandable ways, and his book The Science of Happiness covers everything from brain research to societal conditions that nurture happiness and wellbeing. He synthesizes the conditions of wellbeing this way: “Where there is a sense of community, justice, and control over our own lives, the chances that an individual can lead a happy life are good.” He calls this the “magic triangle” of wellbeing: “A civic sense, social equality, and control over our own lives constitute the magic triangle of wellbeing in society.”
In his excellent TED talk on the Happy Planet Index, Nic Marks argues that the ultimate goal of society is happy and healthy citizens, who live within the laws and limits of the planet’s life-giving operating system. For individuals, he recommends five ways to wellbeing that you can learn about by watching his worthwhile talk.
When it comes to improving personal wellbeing, some themes show up repeatedly:
• Creating time and space for inner stillness: prayer, meditation, mindfulness practice; this discipline has many names. German philosopher Josef Pieper uses the term “leisure” to define this experience: “(It) is the power of stepping beyond the workaday world, and in doing so, touching upon the superhuman life-giving powers which, incidentally almost, renew and quicken us for our everyday tasks.” (Quoted in The Hidden Door by Mark Burch)
• Practicing gratitude: Seligman recommends spending ten minutes each night acknowledging and writing down three things that went well and why they went well.
• Acts of kindness and generosity: according to Seligman “…scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in wellbeing of any exercise we have tested.”
• Physical activity: walking, biking, hiking, singing, yoga, and so on; the wellbeing of body and mind are inextricably linked.
• Journaling: this practice provides space and discipline for reflection and insight.
• Spending time in nature: The average American spends 90% of the time indoors. Yet, respected thinkers from the past like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, and others writing today, passionately encourage time in nature as a way to nourish ourselves physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Harvard entomologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson wrote a book on the subject, Biophilia, The Human Bond with Other Species. Wilson and others make the case that humans have an inborn physical and emotional connection to all of creation. My own personal experience is that I gain from extended moments in nature a perspective that makes me a little calmer, a little quieter, with a little better perspective on what’s important in life.
Nurturing our own wellbeing has a positive impact on society at large. People with greater life satisfaction (which has little to do with wealth and material possessions) are more generous and creative, less judgmental, more compassionate, open, and empathetic, more willing to help their neighbors.
The quality and condition of our mental and emotional state has a distinct and significant impact on our home and work environments. The characteristics of wellbeing nurtured by individuals and shared in relationships brings out the best in those relationships. Aspiration, trust, meaning, faith in each other and what is possible… these things can really change the dynamics and outcomes of our personal and professional relationships.
I am convinced that by nurturing our own personal wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around us, we live happier, healthier, more satisfied lives. What’s more, a strong sense of wellbeing empowers us to have a substantially more positive impact in the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson describes what this kind of a life looks like in practice:
“To laugh often and much, to win respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”