A look at how material happiness is sabotaging our sustainability efforts
Just a quick disclaimer: this week I attended a Hare Krishna talk titled ‘Finding Happiness’ which forms the spiritual basis of this story, but with an added perspective from my personal experiences having studied Social and Sustainability Marketing during my Master’s degree.
So what’s up with sustainability?
There are a few theories over why most people don’t walk the walk when it comes to sustainability practices. For starters, there's 'The Attitude-Behaviour Gap’ or ‘Intention-Behaviour Gap’ (there are too many studies to cite around this, but a place to start is the book The Ethical Consumer — not an affiliate link). It describes those who talk a lot about wanting to be sustainable but don’t practice in reality, though some don’t consider themselves caring for the environment at all.
That then leads to the question of why does this happen? There are a few central beliefs that cause this:
#1 Distance. The phrase “out of sight out of mind” springs up. If you live somewhere in the “first world” you’re less likely to see the environmental problems that the world is suffering from with your own eyes.
#2 Doom. The world as we know it is going to end anyway, so why do anything about it, right?
#3 Dissonance. It’s easier for us to rationalize, justify, and bend our attitudes than it is to change our behavior.
#4 Designation. It’s someone else’s job to do it. Someone else will pick up the pieces. They’re not doing their bit so why should I?
#5 Denial. Some will downright deny there is a problem that needs fixing and carry on without a care in the world.
So here we have a case of people either not walking the talk or just not giving a damn. Depleting the world of its natural resources, causing mass extinction, and polluting what we do have for the sake of ‘material happiness’, more on this later.
Material versus Spiritual Happiness
When you think about happiness, what does that look like to you? For a lot of people, the first things they think of involve having more money, a nice car, a long and successful career, good health, more confidence, world peace, etc. At least that’s what it looks like when I type in “if you had three wishes” into Google. As well as asking around family and friends for their examples. For a more robust case, a 2009 study found that when analyzing a set of nearly 5000 New Years' wishes only 15% of them were explicitly about ‘happiness’. Why then, in a world where ‘Mindfulness’ is an industry valued over $1 Billion and ‘Wellbeing’ at well over $4 Trillion, do only 15% of people ask for happiness when offered anything they wish?
It’s because we are “means maximizers”. We struggle with the idea of ‘happiness’ because to us, it’s too vague. We wish for things that we think will give us happiness or get us to a place of experiencing it because when we think about it, we often don’t know what true happiness looks like.
According to the monk giving the talk, in Vedic knowledge there are only two types of people that experience true happiness:
- Those that live purely for material life. The YOLO type stuff. Live fast, die young. Though he specified that this type of happiness is temporary, a cycle of ups and downs in what’s known as ‘hedonic adaptation’. This type of happiness relies on external stimulation.
- Spiritual Yogi’s. Those that have immense self-realization, self-knowledge and experience happiness through elevation of the soul. This type of happiness comes from within oneself.
So what about the rest of us? The in-betweeners are stuck in perpetual anxiety over the state of the world and ourselves. We’re not in denial as those who only live for material gain, but also not so spiritually-minded to be able to experience yogi-level happiness.
How are ‘happiness’ and ‘sustainability’ related to each other?
You might have already connected the dots here; everyone naturally wants to experience happiness. But how the majority of people seek material happiness is a barrier to sustainability efforts. In the pursuit, we are continually looking to grow; we always want more. We want to be on top of that adaptation curve forever.
This idea of perpetual growth and consumption is unsustainable. So to move towards a better chance of a sustainable future, we ought to become aware that material happiness is a cause of the environmental crises that we are facing. This way, we can shift our mindset towards spiritual happiness instead, relying less on external stimulation and more on internal.
When we experience happiness from within, we are less likely to fall into the hamster wheel of consumerism and driving unsustainability. This way, one can consider true happiness and sustainability to be inseparable, mutually inclusive concepts.
I wanted to end this article with a quote I overheard from the TV the other day, it was from a promotional segment of a morning chat show covering ‘My Family and The Galapagos’, and it was something the researcher said when recalling a conversation with a local. When I heard it, a light bulb kind of lit up inside my mind and how it relates to this idea of spreading spiritual happiness and sustainability for future generations to enjoy:
“Instead of trying to make the world a better place for our kids, we should be making better kids for the world”
I thought this was a pretty great quote since it’s becoming apparent that the younger generations are more inclined towards sustainable practices. If we share knowledge of spiritual happiness with them, we can teach them that it is possible to get off the hedonic curve and step out of the proverbial hamster wheel.