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Interview: Creating Footprints of Delight


Dr. Catherine O'BrienDr. Catherine O’Brien has developed the concept of sustainable happiness and is writing a book on the subject. I reached her in her office at Cape Breton University.

Ruth Dempsey: You have pioneered the concept of "sustainable happiness." How do you define sustainable happiness? Is it related to quality of life?

Catherine O’Brien: Sustainable happiness is happiness that is derived without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations. My aim is to combine positive psychology with sustainability in order to draw attention to our interdependence on the planet and responsibility to current and future generations.

I find that a great deal of happiness writing has focused on how to foster happiness, but it is not addressing the fact that how we pursue happiness impacts other people and the world around us. For example, if I purchase clothing that was made in a sweat shop, my "happiness" has come at the expense of someone else.

Or, I may follow the excellent advice to be more mindful of the moment and savour life’s little pleasures. If we apply this to drinking a cup of coffee then we can imagine how wonderful it is to slow ourselves down, absorb the pleasure of the sipping the coffee and thus we may reduce some stress. This is a great thing to do, but it only takes an individual’s happiness into account. You see, if the coffee is not fair trade coffee, then our blissful moment is once again at the expense of someone else – the coffee picker who may not have been paid fairly.

Sustainable happiness is very much related to quality of life. In fact, if we pay greater attention to how we pursue happiness and strive to live with greater compassion for others and the natural environment, we are more likely to appreciate the "simple" things in life and to feel less compelled to satisfy ourselves through unconscious consumption.

A similar notion to sustainable happiness is the Happy Planet Index. It is calculated by adding a nation’s life expectancy rate and the life satisfaction of its people, divided by its ecological footprint (use of resources). Canada ranks 111th out of 178 countries because even though we score high for life expectancy and life satisfaction, we use far more than our share of the planet’s resources.

RD: Research appears to link health and genuinely happy people. Is that right?

CO: The research in positive psychology suggests that genuinely happy people tend to live longer, recover from illness more quickly and are more likely to seek out and act on health information. Positive emotions have also been linked to a more robust immune system.

Alternately, one does not need to be in "perfect" health to experience happiness. Most people, who have to deal with a life altering health issue, will find a place of equilibrium following the initial transition to the change in their health. I have offered workshops with cancer survivors, and I encourage them not to defer their happiness. It can be so easy to tell oneself that "I’ll be happy when…" rather than realizing that we can choose happiness on a daily basis, regardless of the challenges we face.

RD: Your approach to the happiness puzzle is to focus on transportation and the development of cities. For example, you argue transportation plays a critical role in children’s emotional development and well-being. How does this work?

CO: For many years, my research focused on children’s health and sustainable transportation. One thing that stood out for me was the fact that transportation literature is very pragmatic, discussing efficiencies and economics. Whereas children’s descriptions of traveling to school are full of wonder, discovery, and joy.

A five year-old walking to school on International Walk to School Day said, "I walk to school because I can stop and say hello to a kitty or a pup and sing along with the birds." I realized that, as adults, we are preoccupied with getting from point A to point B. Conversely, children tend to live more in the "nowscape" that stress reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us is important for well-being.

As I have documented the impact of transportation on children’s health, it is evident that children who are able to walk or cycle safely in their community are given the opportunity to feel more connected to the world around them, to engage with their environment, and enjoy the physical exercise that enhances both physical and emotional well-being. Teachers also tell us that the children who have walked or cycled to school arrive more ready to learn (they get the jitters out) and have more stories to tell about their journey.

RD: Is there something that parents and grandparents can do to foster children’s growth in this regard? You have developed some resources, I think. Can you tell me about these?

CO: Parents and grandparents can be terrific role models for active living. That means walking or cycling for short trips. It may also mean refusing to drive older children to destinations that they can reach independently (even by transit). I encourage parents and grandparents to becoming actively involved in walking school bus programs, which assist children to find safe routes to school in the company of adults or older children.

Working with the Centre for Sustainable Transportation, I co-authored an information booklet for parents.

I also encourage parents and grandparents to read Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. It documents all the wonderful reasons why it is important to find natural spaces for our children to play, even if it is in the backyard.

RD: You recently launched the world’s first Delightful Places Survey in collaboration with the National Center for Bicycling and Walking. What was the purpose of the survey? Did you receive a good response?

CO: The survey was a pilot project to explore the interface between positive psychology and urban planning. I was curious to learn more about the experience people have in places that are delightful for them. We had a great response and were encouraged to pursue this further. One person even asked to have it translated into Spanish.

RD: Tell me what you learned from the survey.

CO: One of the most striking and universal responses in the survey was that delightful places create the feeling of relaxation and a feeling of connection to oneself, to other people and to nature. There was an overwhelming recommendation for the creation of more delightful places in cities and the suggestion to create urban environments that give us daily doses of delight! One respondent notes that some of this is within our own control because we can create delightful places in our backyard, within our homes and even around the kitchen table.

RD: How do we go about creating more delightful footprints? Can you be specific?

CO: There are infinite ways to do this and I believe that the only limit is our imagination! A great beginning is to decide that this is an important thing to do, on a daily basis. And then, play with ideas for leaving a legacy of delight – on a moment-to-moment basis, day-to-day, and throughout your lifetime.

For example, what thoughts might you have that create stress within yourself, reducing your own happiness? Many people in industrialized countries have been socialized to be perpetually dissatisfied with life so we may notice that we have a habit of not appreciating simple things, like having clean drinking water, enough food to eat, people who care about us.

Then, we can consider what habits and behaviours we engage in more or less automatically that may be harmful or helpful. Where are our clothes made? Are we driving more than we need to? Can we conserve more energy? Are we just planning to spend more time with family and friends and never quite getting to it?

My perspective is that our thoughts and actions can nurture sustainable happiness if we can teach ourselves to pay attention to our interdependence and to live with far greater compassion for others.

Dr. O’Brien may be reached at: catherine_obrien @