‘A Call for Conscious, Sustainable Hedonism’ – LSE Review of Books

LSE Review of Books header
This post was originally published on the LSE Review of Books on 9th November 2022.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Orsolya Lelkes introduces her book, Sustainable Hedonism: A Thriving Life That Does Not Cost the Earth, which explores a vision of the good life that is both enjoyable and at the same time does not harm others and the planet. 

Sustainable Hedonism: A Thriving Life That Does Not Cost the Earth. Orsolya Lelkes. Bristol University Press. 2021.

Book cover for review of Sustainable Hedonism

Sustainable Hedonism: A Thriving Life That Does Not Cost the Earth was my freedom project. As a researcher and policy analyst, working in the Ministry of Finance in Hungary and then in a UN-affiliated social research institute in Vienna, my spirited ambition to make a difference in social policies gradually drained. Not only did I not manage to make a significant contribution to fairer policies (just look at Hungary now), I did not really enjoy much of the research I was doing. I was following other people’s (policymakers and research funders’) agendas, rather than creating my own. I was mostly reacting, rather than acting. And to be honest, I was often bored re-reading my work.

What if I gave myself complete freedom in writing? What if I wrote about a topic I felt passionate about? A topic that was timely and relevant for others as well? What if I wrote something I enjoyed reading? But what is this something? I took a few steps back, gave space to myself and looked at things with a broader perspective. I listened to my inner voice, and listened to the voices of thought-provoking scientists, changemakers and rebels.

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Sustainable Hedonism book aims to break down convictions

Article written by the Business Spirit Platform, originally published in the “Make change happen” issue of Profit with Purpose Magazine

How can we create a thriving life for us all that does not come at the price of ecological destruction?

The Sustainable Hedonism book calls us to explore our collective and personal convictions about success and good life.

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Sustainable Hedonism: Not an oxymoron

Originally published on the Behavioural Public Policy Blog of Cambridge University Press, 13th June 2022

Sustainable Hedonism: Strategy for a fair and joyful life

Humanity does not live in a socially just and environmentally safe space: there is no country where basic social safety is achieved and where the use of resources remains under the ecological ceiling if we also take into consideration activities it has outsourced to other countries. We need to converge into a fair consumption space, which implies more consumption for those with unmet basic human needs, and less consumption for those who surpassed the environmental maxima.My primary concern is the latter, from a personal motivational perspective. Why would anybody want to consume less if it is seen as a loss of quality of life, or ultimately, happiness? Why would anyone want to become a minimalist in the world of maximisers?

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Sustainable Hedonism: Paradox or Pathway?

Originally published on the degrowth platform, 27th January 2022

The notion of sustainable hedonism appears at first to be a provocation. Is it a paradox? Is it just more greenwashing nonsense? It is meant to puzzle, to perplex, and to propel. Sustainable Hedonism: A Thriving Life that Does Not Cost the Earth is a call to reflect on our beliefs and actions related to pleasure, joy and ecological sustainability.  How joyful is our life? How can we reconcile our natural quest for joy with our sense of responsibility and knowledge of the suffering in the world? How can we create a good life individually and collectively given the urgent call to reduce the use of natural resources? How can we end our addiction to GDP growth, income growth and the growth of consumption, given our instinctive drive for progress and fulfilment in our lives?

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After COVID-19: A time for conscious hedonism?


Originally published by Bristol University Press on their Transforming Society blog.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a sense of loss of control, and for many people it has been a painful experience. Our routines, lifestyle choices and all that we have so far taken for granted have suddenly been shattered and questioned. The world around us has shrunk, and existing structures have crumbled. Can it become a chance for a conscious readjustment of our lives?

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Weaving the threads together: how the book came about?

For a long time, I lived a “double life”. Part of me was researching social justice and analysing statistics of happiness, submerged in public policy. The other part of me, kept separately, lived a life, embodied, playful and spiritual – exploring an inner journey and learning methods like coaching, psychodrama, improvisation dance, mindfulness, meditation. I felt that I had to keep them apart not to discredit myself in these circles… as they all seem to have had great reservations about the other. As my „second life” was gradually growing and I started to lead groups and to work as a coach, it became ever more difficult to maintain this divider in my life and in myself. Somehow I was blocking the natural flow of life energy in myself.

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The mystery of creative life: the time for non-action

Many ethical leaders, entrepreneurs, activists, and open-hearted people feel passionate about the fate of the world, and they strive relentlessly to bring about a change they wish to see. Some may be driven by frustration with the current state of affairs, and focus on protest. Some may envision a peaceful and regenerative future, and collective creation is their driving force.  All in all, however, constant effort is exhausting, especially if someone wants to carry the whole burden of the world alone – as the Greek God Atlas. If they forget about their needs and limits, they can become “endangered species” as well.

Although we may wish to, we cannot hold our fate under control. So much suffering comes from aiming to control not only our actions, but also their consequences! A sense of failure, of not being enough, of not trying hard enough. As if we suffered from not being omnipotent.

The holiest things in life are not created by us, by our own efforts. The seed emerges from the earth, the bud becomes a flower, the fertilized egg becomes a fetus, and then baby, as the organs and cells of our bodies relentlessly work to sustain our life – it is not the outcome of our will and action. We cannot do anything but notice, witness, feel a sense of wonder, and observe the miracle.

Hence, co-creative life is not solely based on will, the urge to act, or a desire for making a difference.  Action and non-action: they belong together. Each has its own time, just as the seasons follow each other, just as a tree blossoms, bears fruit, and then drops its leaves and fells into a winter dream. We cannot urge spring with an alarm clock. A great transformation often occurs during our non-action, when we experience a different quality of existence, characterized by openness, trust, and letting go.

Tuning into this rhythm of life is a great mystery. A mystery worth exploring.

Desires and happiness: the sacred and secret cornerstones of economics (my motivation for writing a book)

Desires drive the world, say economists, without pausing to think what desires are. De gustibus non est disputandum ‒ tastes are not to be disputed ‒ recalled the Nobel Prize-winning economists Gary S. Becker and George J. Stigler in a 1977 article, on the subject of “preferences”. Consumers know what they want and that suffices, they argue, for due respect can then be given to human liberty. Let people wish freely for what they will and decide how to enjoy it. That will make them happiest, and will ensure the greatest bliss to the most people in our common world (or technically speaking, maximise utility at individual and social levels). It becomes ever clearer that this is not so for several reasons.

Many academics fail to question what the nature of desires is and are little concerned with the myriad senses of happiness. We hang out the banner of freedom and leave mankind to flounder amidst the greatest undertaking in human life. By so doing we assume the two cornerstones of the system ‒ desires and the pleasure of fulfilling them ‒ as given without delving into them thoroughly. We have chosen cornerstones of a material whose composition is unknown to us. Does this not bring blind faith into building the house of civilization?

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The space in between

At certain times in life, we feel that things are out of control. We have done all what we could, and yet, there is silence, there is no response, there is no awaited event or meeting or clear direction. We are waiting.

These spaces in-between tend to make up most of our life time, most of our being. Like the space between particles, or the space between the atoms, or the space between celestial bodies in the universe. Without space, no material would exist. These spaces, these waiting times are inherent part of our lives. They may feel like a vacuum, they may feel painful, but there is an immense freedom in them – as they are not filled with the “usual” stuff. We need to honour them, as we honour ourselves. We need to resist to control, to exert force or to strive to fill this space immediately. Rather, we can practice to stay calm in this freedom of emptiness, the freedom of not knowing yet. Our true freedom is to be at peace in these empty spaces. These spaces in between make us able to transform, to enter a new phase in our lives. Trusting and being and being well in ourselves is the best we can do.  Just like a mother expecting a baby, one cannot rush, just honour the growth of (yet invisible) life inside. Be well in your space in-between! You are not “only” waiting, you are already living. This is your life.