• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Sustainability commandment #4

Helping students learn how to be happy.

November 13, 2014

Be happy; protect and preserve our planet and the natural resources it provides.

If advanced society is to continue, much less flourish, it must do so on this planet.  Yet preservation of the planet and its natural resources isn’t what we practice, and it isn’t what we teach (or preach, as you prefer).  Instead, what we teach is that consumption of natural resources is the mechanism of the good life, and that ever faster, ever more efficient consumption is the objective of good business.

For years, sustainability advocates have preached “the precautionary principle”, according to which if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking action (wording courtesy of wikipedia).  Of course, as with so many virtues and so much preaching, this one has been honored primarily in the breach.  The reason is simple – there’s money to be made by despoiling the planet.

To resist (I dare not say “overcome”) this tendency, educators might begin by helping students to reconsider the concept of wealth.  We all know students who come to campus in a search for monetary wealth (or, at least, an income level which will afford them a large amount of disposable income – not quite the same thing, but there’s clearly a correlation).  In an ideal world, I’d love to see the desire to maximize monetary income transformed over the course of an undergraduate career into a desire to maximize available stocks of material wealth and resources.  That, however, seems beyond the range of the possible.  Stocks of material wealth are maximized largely by forbearance – by consciously choosing not to consume, even though consumption is physically possible.  Somehow, I doubt that forbearance is a trait that can be taught in four years to students who have been programmed as individualized consumers for at least four times that long (and who are still constantly subjected to consumption-encouraging programming).  I doubt that we can defeat the urge to self-gratification, but perhaps we can redirect it.  Perhaps we can dissolve in students' minds the tacit (yet demonstrably incorrect) assumption that having/consuming more stuff leads to increased happiness.  It’s not the search for human happiness which is consuming the planet, it’s the false model our society endorses of how to achieve it.

Happiness hasn’t been the subject of as much academic research as, for example, energy efficiency or disease prevention.  Yet, arguably, it’s as or even more important than either of those topics – people who are truly happy consume less energy (both directly and indirectly) than those who aren’t, and happy people get sick less often (and suffer less when they do become ill) than unhappy ones do.  Still, there’s a rapidly growing body of knowledge on the subject, and increasing its visibility on college campuses can only cause that rate of growth to increase.  Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness, the UN’s annual World Happiness Report, and media coverage of happiness rankings by country all provide means of engaging student interest and concepts for structuring on-campus research.

Academic attention to societal happiness rightly belongs in the social sciences, most likely sociology, social psychology, and economics (“happiness economics” is a growing, if somewhat heterodox, specialty within the discipline).  But I think that if student assumptions about what leads to happiness are going to change, the message is best first delivered by the humanities.  Art and music speak directly to the emotions, so happiness is a natural topic of conversation.  Literature and drama provide profound insights (or, at least, the opportunities for insights) into the human condition, so ditto.  And the study of living languages naturally includes developing understanding of the relevant culture; differing levels of happiness result from differing cultural attitudes and assumptions, so the subject can readily be introduced as connotations of various words and concepts become clear.  There are probably other examples.

The humanities, then, can put the topic of happiness squarely on the academic table, but we’re back to the social sciences if we want to develop in-depth understanding in our students.  Happily (pun intended), the relative happiness of various groups and sub-groups on campus is simple (although not necessarily easy) to research.  Psychological and attitude inventories around the question “how happy are you” are becoming increasingly reliable and standardized.  The burgeoning Gross National Happiness movement has identified nine “domains” for happiness research (only one of which is economically determined).  The campus community forms a natural research population which exhibits differences across multiple dimensions, but which is also fairly readily defined and normalized.  Happiness research can render the whole campus community a living laboratory, with no infrastructure investment worth mentioning.  Students can be expected to express interest in happiness research results, especially if they and the groups to which they belong were research subjects.

If students can come to understand during their undergraduate years just what factors contribute to happiness generally – and, so, to their individual happiness in the future – then we stand a chance of slowing and perhaps reversing the world’s rate of increase in natural resource consumption.  And since some of the factors most strongly correlating with happiness are societal rather than individual, maybe in a decade or two we can find a way to teach students to value forbearance.


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