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Understanding our growing interest in happiness

I'm sorry that I need to make you think about your coffee before you take another sip.

But I do.

There are shades of happiness associated with even very simple things, you see.

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And experts on "sustainable happiness" want us to think about them.

As Catherine O'Brien, associate professor of education at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, wrote in a paper that coined the sustainable happiness phrase, "I may take great pleasure in drinking my morning coffee, even be very mindful of living in that moment, but if I am not drinking fair trade coffee, this pursuit of happiness is not sustainable."

Happiness is not a plunge in the nearest body of water.

It's a snowball that's getting bigger everyday and careening toward a socio-political issue near you.

I must admit that for a Happiness Gal, this is the sort of thing that makes me extremely grumpy. For almost two years, I have been writing about the happiness phenonmenon, and there isn't much that hasn't been roped onto the bandwagon, however loosely. It's the go-to, must-have buzz word of markerters everywhere. That someone hasn't figured out how to sell hemorrhoid cream based on happiness is a surprise. It's the greatest of all motherhood platforms that's hard to argue with. (And if you do, then what are you but a Scrooge for all seasons?) It's used to promote beverages, cars, houses – and now it might help bring an end to poverty and climate change.

I suppose it was inevitable. The positive psychology phenomenon may have started about 25 years ago as a self-help tool for individuals, but soon it grew into a movement that touched on larger societal issues, especially in the the wake of the famous Easterlin paradox showing that after a certain level of income, happiness didn't increase. The fact that the U.S. routinely ranked well down the list of the world's happiest countries, despite its economic leadership, didn't hurt the research drive. Some academics, such as Tim Kasser, an associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, attacked Western materialism, citing numerous studies suggesting that the pursuit of the American-style economic dream, came with psychological, social and ecological costs. (Even in academia, happiness obsession is an opportunity to make a name for yourself.)

I have a major case of Flake Alert. I can smell feel-goodism a mile away like rotten socks in a boy's room. Still, there's something interesting going on here in the area of sustainable happiness, even though I'm the first to say I'm irritated by people telling me to think deeply about my choice of coffee.

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There's a wealth of research, for one. Governments have put national happiness indexes on the political agenda as a better measurement of society's accomplishments rather than simply GDP. And there's a growing acknowledgment that well-being is a powerful and meaningful motivator. Sustainable happiness is "about a sensibility of what we are about as a society ... and focuses on the importance of being connected to the way we and others live. As we do more work, people are connecting the dots," explains Dr. O'Brien in an interview.

Called a pioneer in the area of sustainable happiness – Cape Breton University is the first university in the world to offer a post-secondary course in the subject – Dr. O'Brien defines it as "happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment or future generations."

In April, the new frontier had its international (and historic) debut in the big lights of New York at the first-ever United Nations conference on happiness. In a paper, World Happiness Report, commissioned for the conference, co-author Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, wrote that we are in an "anthropocene" epoch, an invented term derived from two Greek roots – "anthropo" for humans and "cene" for new. Basicially, he argued that it behooves humanity to adopt "lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment."

John Helliwell, an economics professor at University of British Columbia and elder statesman of global happiness research, who also contributed to the paper, describes the application of well-being research to climate change this way: "Once you have the science, you say, 'I have a hammer. Where are the nails?' and the global warming is a great big nail.

"If you are facing a problem that is unconsciously created by unthinking collective action – ie. collective action that hasn't been coordinated with an eye to its consequences – then quite clearly you need to be harnessing these pro-social motivations in order to solve it."

I like that. With 7-billion people on the planet, it's inspiring to think that we can bring about a positive outcome for others by reminding ourselves to do things that makes us feel good. It's a beautiful paradox. I don't need happiness research to tell me that human beings often want to do the right thing, and they feel better about themselves when they do. I just have to think about what I was told as a child, and what I have repeated to my children. It's really about simple human values. And maybe that's why so many of the conclusions of happiness studies seem obvious.

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It's just that we have forgotten.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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