Sustainable Hedonism – Contents overview

Sustainable Hedonism. A Thriving Life that Does Not Cost the Earth is a 2021 non-fiction book by Austrian-Hungarian social researcher and psychological counsellor Orsolya Lelkes, PhD published by Bristol University Press. The book elaborates on how we can create a thriving life for us all that doesn’t come at the price of ecological destruction.


Orsolya Lelkes has been conducting research on this subject at the London School of Economics and at the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research in Vienna for over 20 years. She has been also working as psychological counsellor and certified coach supporting groups and individuals in their transformations for a flourishing life. The book is an integration of many scientific fields, including psychology, social psychology, behavioural economics, critical social theory, philosophy, as well as practices and insights from her practical transformative work.


Introduction: Is There Anyone Who Does Not Want to Thrive?

The book sets out with the dilemma of how to live a life that brings growth and fulfilment, yet that is at the same time considerate of the finite resources of our Earth. Lelkes invites the reader to scrutinize their convictions and strategies on how they seek a good life and to explore alternatives.

PART I: The Challenge

1. Unintended Consequences of Economics as a Science

The portrait of human nature as rational, egoistic, pleasure-seeking economic man has become a world view that promises to offer a pathway to prosperity, both individually and socially. This view was criticized by many, including Daniel Kahneman, John Harsanyi, and Peter Drucker. Art also warns us of the perils of greed. Pleasure as an ultimate value dates back to ancient Greek hedonism, but seeking pleasure (and avoiding pain) became the cornerstone of our Western world. This is the utopia of joyful freedom.

2. The Narrative of Success in Capitalism, and Its Failures

The chapter challenges the view that material progress will make us happy and free. It shows that GDP growth does not bring happiness. On a personal level, enjoying abundance, aspiring for high status or striving to fulfill all our desires may harm oneself and harm others globally. New forms of addictions are on the rise.

PART II: What Is a Good Life?

3 Pleasure, Joy, Satisfaction, Purpose: Refining Our Quest for Happiness

Although happiness has a number of health and social benefits, actively seeking happiness may backfire, according to recent research. Huxley in his book Brave New World calls for the right to be unhappy. Herbert Simon and Barry Schwartz warn of the pitfalls of maximizing, and argue that less can be more. Happiness is not endless euphoria. Happiness has a thousand faces, and exploring the refined nature of our own well-being could help us to take care or ourselves as well as relate to others well.

4. Sustainable Hedonism

Data on resource use highlights the responsibility of the global rich, and to a smaller extent, the middle classes. The so-called radical hedonism, unrestrained, egoist pleasure-seeking, is largely responsible for our ecological destruction and global injustice. In contrast, ancient hedonism was be the art of enjoying life without being enslaved to one’s desires, as shown by Aristippus and Epicurus. Aristotle calls for self-mastery, and a middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence. The chapter concludes that sustainable hedonism is possible, and ecologically responsible behaviour is not painful asceticism.

5. A Flourishing Life: Living Well and Doing Well

Happiness is the ultimate good, according to Aristotle, and enjoyment is just means to make someone happy. Happiness or flourishing life (“eudaimonia”) is not simply a feeling, but based on conscious action, the cultivation of virtues. Friendships play a key role in one’s own development and the community is the ultimate benchmark of personal progress. The ancient virtues of temperance, courage, good temper, as well as practical wisdom can bring many fruits today: joy, greater autonomy, self-care, conscious consumption, engagement in community actions, and activism.

6. Values in an Era of Free Choice

According to the global survey of values by Shalom H. Schwartz, the three most widely acclaimed values are benevolence (friendship, love), universalism (tolerance, peace, love of nature), and autonomy (freedom, creativity). These results hold across diverse cultures, implying that humanity has a majority consensus on our core values. This shows that the presumptions of the world-view of the economic man do not hold. The question is how can we live up to our aspirations for these three core values.

PART III: How Do We Get There?

7. The Laboratory of the Flourishing Life: Serious Change Can Be Playful

Role playing is almost instinctive for children, and it was part of our human civilization even before the invention of writing: we told and played stories to each other. Role-playing and the Theatre of the Soul as a method of experiential learning can support the creation of a flourishing life.

8. Inner Agents and Saboteurs of the Good Life: Role Theory

Applying psychodramatic role theory, the chapter argues that we are driven by inner forces – internalized at some stage of life from our families, community, or culture – that may sabotage us from living a happy life. Lelkes proposes archetypal roles which may promote and hinder the flourishing life in a person, including e.g. the Hero, the Artist, the Overachiever, an Orphan or a Tyrant.  She shows a specific methodology for how role conflicts can be solved, and illustrates this with case studies.

Conclusion: Flourishing Life in the World

A flourishing life offers a pathway to a life that is both sustainable and happy. It is a life strategy, where our value- seeking, moral selves and our instinctive, pleasure- seeking selves are integrated. Physical and emotional safety are key to a flourishing life, as they can heal a potentially (harmful) attitude to power, material possessions, fame and success. This could be enhanced by social policies as well as communities. The book concludes with mentioning several alternative economic, social, ecological and communal solutions that show the way out of the current crisis.