Happiness matters. The quest for happiness is an elementary life force and an inherent part of steady state economies. Many fear that reducing material consumption will bring a decline in happiness. We do not like to lose what we already have. Recession and income loss tend to hurt.
On the other hand, voluntary adjustment of priorities in life may boost well-being, as a simpler life might deliver more of what many are missing: health, time for ourselves and loved ones, community, creative pastimes, arts, culture, sports, spiritual practices, and more generally, a sense of meaning. To achieve a profound transformation of societal systems, we need to move beyond analysing the causes and signs of the social and ecological crisis and beyond describing the destructive patterns of our economies. A positive narrative is essential for inspiring and motivating individual and collective action.
From a historical perspective, we should be living in the happiest of all worlds. Ours is a culture ostensibly centered around happiness: The mainstream neoclassical economic system aims to maximize pleasure (utility) for all, and is based on the assumption that we humans seek the greatest pleasure and the least pain, and that this quest is the main driver of our actions.
Happiness has also been a philosophical, political, and personal striving for centuries. In the American Declaration of Independence, the “Pursuit of Happiness” is named as an unalienable right of humans, next to life and liberty. And today, the science of happiness is booming. On a personal level, the science of positive psychology offers a large range of tools that can support us in cultivating a joyful and meaningful life.
Happiness is relevant to steady state economies even though they do not focus on wellbeing as such. The quest for happiness, joy, and pleasure is an elemental life force. Who would not want to be happy? To create a profound systemic transformation, a positive, forward-looking narrative is essential to inspire and motivate individual and collective action, and this narrative would ideally offer some sense of happiness.
Many fear that shifting to a “green lifestyle” or reducing material consumption will bring a decline in wellbeing. I argue that it may be the other way round, that simplicity can advance happiness. But for this, we need to adjust our notion of happiness as well as our strategies for pursuing it.
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.
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.
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?
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?