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Sustainable Happiness

Originally appears in the Summer 2011 issue

Environmental educators tend to be nice folks. We’re the first to encourage a child to join us on a hike, and the last to leave a party when there are recyclables that need to be sorted from the garbage. A love of life drew many of us to this profession: a love for bugs and birds and early morning canoe trips or muscle-burning mountain hikes.

The irony, of course, is that much of what we teach is depressing. Global climate change, endangered species, habitat destruction, plastics pollution: our job is to chronicle the destruction of the very things we care most deeply about, and to raise the alarm to others. All too often, we end up being unwitting harbingers of doom and gloom. Is this the most effective way to inspire engagement? What if we could return to our jovial roots? What if exploring happiness and all those things that make our heart sing, rather than the threat of demise, turns out to be the best way to inspire greener lifestyles amongst our students and other educators?

We’ve been investigating these questions as new findings from environmental psychology, positive psychology and resiliency research provide fresh understandings about the way we engage with sustainability issues.  The result is an innovative field that links happiness with sustainability: Sustainable Happiness.


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Elin Kelsey, PhD, lives in Pacific Grove, California where she works as a consultant with Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions . She is spending the summer studying hope and resiliency as a Visiting Scholar at the Cairns Institute, in Queensland, Australia. Catherine O’Brien, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia.  Both authors are eager to hear from readers and researchers who are working with these concepts. Contact them at and