Teaching a University Course in Sustainable Happiness


Ian Murray
In a sustainable happiness course, students learn how their well-being is tied to the well-being of other people and the planet.

Can tenth-grade Inuit students in Repulse Bay (Nunavut, Canada) teach the world governments something about ways to measure progress?

In a recent classroom project taken from Sustainable Happiness and Health Education Teacher’s Guide, these students created a video celebrating what makes them happy: fresh air, spending time with family and friends, sports, home, a peaceful place, ice hockey, listening to music, square dancing, and loving someone, something, or yourself. It’s an important lesson for world leaders considering ways to measure progress other than traditional financial indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP).

While some might think that happiness is too lightweight to merit serious attention, others have recognized that it is a vital link to sustainability. Sustainable happiness—which I define as happiness that contributes to individual, community, and/or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment, or future generations—can be used to encourage sustainable behavior, even among people who have no apparent interest in sustainability or any initial desire to be environmentally friendly. It’s a powerful hook. The universal human desire for happiness becomes the entry point for individuals to discover that their well-being is inextricably linked with the well-being of other people, other species, and the natural environment. The growing interest in a universal happiness index represents a huge opportunity for sustainability education.

During the United Nations’ Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014), educators are taking a critical look at the role that education plays in forging sustainable societies. The question has been raised whether education is part of the problem or part of the solution, as the education sector has been slow to introduce sustainability across curricula, to model it in our schools, and to train our teachers for sustainability education. We are taking a bold step forward with the introduction of sustainable happiness.

Happiness and well-being have not traditionally been components of formal education curricula and so we might ask, beyond parents and guardians, who or what is teaching us about happiness? And what are we learning? With many students spending more hours per week on “the three screens” (computers, televisions, smartphones) than they do in the classroom, their informal education from the media often reinforces a worldview of achieving happiness through material consumption.

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Students are increasingly exposed to a popular-media worldview of achieving happiness through material consumption. We can balance this by more formally incorporating happiness and well-being education into our school curricula. Shown here is a drawing of “natural happiness” by a fourth grader at Nakasuk School in Nunavut, Canada.

We’re working to change this at Cape Breton University where we’ve introduced an innovative and engaging course on sustainable happiness for undergraduates and teachers-in-training. The aim is for students to understand sustainable happiness so that they apply it both personally and professionally. Weekly readings, classes, and activities prompt the students to examine how their daily lifestyle choices, for better and worse, can impact them, other people, and the natural world. Some of these activities include a happiness interview (interviewing the happiest person they know) and the completion of a baseline chart that tracks their actions for one day and captures some of the implications for their well-being as well as possible consequences for others and the environment. We explore genuine wealth; reducing consumption of nonrenewable resources; drawing an “interdependence map,” which outlines the web of connections to people and the resources that sustain them; expressing gratitude; and becoming “happiness literate.” We conclude the course with a sustainable happiness project.

This project has to be achievable in less than a week. Typically, students select a project that is personally meaningful. One student decided to educate all of us about how to make a pizza from ingredients produced within a 100-mile radius. Another organized a community cleanup with her daughters and girlfriends. They called themselves Girls Against Garbage, or GAG. A student who referred to herself at the outset of the course as a “shopaholic” established a clothing exchange with her friends. Many of the students strive to reduce their ecological footprint by shifting to more sustainable transportation, minimizing junk food, eliminating their use of plastic water bottles, conserving water and energy, and purchasing fair trade and organic products. One young woman set out to heal the relationship with her mother-in-law, and an aboriginal student initiated an after-school language program in her native language. Students came to understand the relationship between their actions and well-being for all. As one student said, “There are aspects of my life that have changed for the better since the onset of this course, such as my physical activity levels, my eagerness to purchase local and fair trade products, and my outlook on life and the well-being of others.”

The sustainable happiness course helps students reflect upon their happiness footprint. How do their daily decisions and consumer activities impact their well-being? How might a single cup of coffee be connected to the well-being of those who produced it? The overarching themes are interdependence and interconnection. Perhaps the most compelling and gratifying aspect of teaching this course is that most of my students voice the realization that an individual’s actions can and do make a difference. They discover that their happiness footprint is not just relevant to how they thrive but also relevant to how our planet thrives.

Teaching this course has convinced me that sustainable happiness should be both a vision and a goal for education—elementary, secondary, and postsecondary. We can use the concept to help our students flourish by giving them the skills to enhance their well-being; developing happiness literacy to critically analyze media messages; exploring options for making lifestyle choices that contribute to their well-being, sustainably; and assisting them to discover, or even create, sustainable livelihoods by learning about sustainable happiness champions. Teachers benefit, too. While many educators have been exposed to environmental education, they are generally less aware of how to incorporate sustainability into their personal lifestyles and the teaching profession. Sustainable happiness introduces opportunities for them to understand, emotionally and intellectually, that their lives touch and are touched daily by other people, other species, and the natural environment.

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Ian Murray
Students in Nunavut, Canada, were asked what makes them happy. Among other things, they listed friends, a peaceful place, and fresh air.

Sustainable happiness has an even larger sphere of influence, beyond individuals. We can use it to examine policy and practice at the institutional, governmental, and national levels. Let’s consider a corporation, for example. The business sector has learned that happy employees are more productive because they demonstrate less absenteeism, increased creativity, and more cooperative behavior. The January/February 2012 cover of the Harvard Business Review proclaims, “The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits.” Employee happiness is important, of course, but what if those happy workers are increasing the productivity of companies that are not practicing corporate social and environmental responsibility? Sustainable happiness reinforces the relevance of making that big picture connection. This applies to national pursuits as well. Being named in the top list of happiest countries should not be a nation’s claim to fame unless the happiness of its citizens is sustainable happiness, ensuring that their prosperity hasn’t been attained at the expense of exploiting other people and the unsustainable use of natural resources.

Municipal planning is being transformed in municipalities that have overcome the fear of using the h-word, understanding that happiness and well-being are components of successful cities. The positive emotions that children experience while walking to school are an example of sustainable happiness. Walking is also active transportation, an important source of physical activity and a contributor to cohesive neighborhoods. Imagine designing cities that enhance well-being, sustainably! I’m working with colleagues at 8-80 Cities, a Canadian based nonprofit organization working to create vibrant cities with happy, healthy communities, to develop a resource for municipalities to incorporate sustainable happiness.

It’s time to take happiness to the next level and merge it with sustainability. There are thousands of examples worldwide of lifestyles and livelihoods that represent sustainable happiness. There are businesses and communities that have learned how to merge well-being with economic development. We can capture these stories through initiatives such as a virtual international network for sustainable happiness. Research would be accelerated with doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships in sustainable happiness. One or more research centers for sustainable happiness could become hubs of activity that both generate and disseminate information about sustainable happiness.

I’m particularly keen to involve the views of children and youth. As we learned from the tenth-grade students in Nunavut, young people have a powerful voice that needs to be shared.

Author Note

My personal commitment is to collect examples of sustainable happiness champions. Please send information and stories to [email protected].