Personal sustainability: the conservation of happiness

Author: 
Sue Brightly

If you ask most people about personal sustainability, they’ll likely point out their efforts to properly recycle and compost after meals, and perhaps a few other environmentally sensible habits, such as turning off lights, reducing water use and riding the bus to work. Most folks will say it’s kind of a hassle, but it’s the right thing to do.

But there’s a new way of thinking about personal sustainability that goes way beyond the “Three R’s” of reduce, reuse and recycle. Proponents claim that living sustainably isn’t just the right thing to do for the planet – it’s the right thing to do for your own happiness.

So what exactly is personal sustainability?

Sustainability is generally described as the process of supporting a system in a manner that doesn’t deplete or damage it over time.

To apply the sustainability model individually, imagine someone who is always working long hours, constantly checking mobile devices, spending long hours commuting. In the short term, these actions can result in more income or better career opportunities. But from a sustainability standpoint, all the fast-food meals, lack of sleep, missed exercise and misused energy are likely over time to result in increased toxic by-products, such as impaired fitness, frustration and depression.

Pilar Girasimo, in “The Better Good Life: An Essay on Personal Sustainability,” writes that, “instead of making us happy and healthy, all of this has left a great many of us feeling depleted, lonely, strapped, stressed and resentful. We don’t have enough time for ourselves, our loved ones, our creative aspirations or our communities.”

Sound familiar?

As a remedy, she suggests we examine our choices through a lens of sustainability to understand the resources we may be depleting or damaging in our lives, such as the precious non-renewable resource of time, or the toxic waste we may be building up, such as stress and financial debt, that may require great effort and expense to clean up later.

Girasimo concludes that “when enough of us are in a chronically diminished state of well-being, the effect is a sort of social and moral pollution – the human equivalent of the greenhouse gasses that threaten our entire ecosystem.” Make good sustainable choices for yourself, be happier – and in turn be a part of making the world a better place.

Here are suggestions for getting started:

1.    Recharge your inner batteries
Get outside! Research suggests that being outdoors relieves stress, makes you feel more satisfied with life, and even benefits the brain in ways similar to meditation. Connect with nature or get exercise outdoors, and enjoy a lift in mood.

2.    Reduce info-pollution
Unplug – take a daily media break, and spend that time tuning in to family and friends, and just being present in the moment.

3.    Clean up your environment
Is your office or home suffering from clutter? Studies show tidying up can actually boost productivity, reduce stress and support a feeling of calmness.

4.    Preserve wildlife
Laugh out loud. Dance. Turn up the music. Each of these activities has been scientifically proven to help reduce stress and improve well-being.

5.    Conserve energy
Always being on the go takes a toll on your body. Slow down and treat your body to a massage, do yoga, and get enough sleep.
If you find the idea of personal sustainability compelling, you’re in the right place to find out more: Cornell is a leading hub of research in the study of sustainability, with a wealth of resources to help you pursue sustainability at every level. Start at the Cornell Sustainability web page, with links to campus departments and organizations such as the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, or go to the Cornell Sustainable Campus web page to see what Cornell is doing in our operations, research, education and engagement. The “People” page lists initiatives that relate to personal sustainability. And be sure to check out the Staff and Faculty Wellness Program for a wide range of opportunities to foster joy, balance and well-being in your life!