Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference
Reviewed by Ruah Swennerfelt
Edited by Sarah van Gelder. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014. 168 pages. $16.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.Buy on FJ Amazon Store
It’s not often that I read a book about environmental issues that is positive, uplifting, and inspiring. Sustainable Happiness is just such a book. It is a collection of short essays, many of which were previously published in YES! Magazine, one of my favorite publications because of its focus on positive futures. The book is divided into three parts: What We Know About Real Well-Being; the Practice of Happiness (or, How You Can Get Some); and Sustainable Happiness and the Beloved Community.
No matter what age you are, or what concerns or challenges you face, you will find wisdom and guidance in this small book. In the introduction you will learn that sustainable happiness is possible, and it gives you five places to start:
- Stop the causes of trauma and support healing.
- Build economic and social equity.
- Value the gifts we each bring.
- Protect the integrity of the natural world.
- Develop practices that support our own well-being.
It sounds like a huge undertaking, but after reading many of the essays, you are consistently led to being grounded in your spiritual life, practicing gratitude, and sharing love. Doesn’t that sound very much like a Quaker following the testimonies?
I was very touched by Annie Leonard’s chapter on “Who Pays the Price for Cheap Stuff?” She says, “As individuals, we can use less stuff if we remember to look inward and evaluate our richness of our hobbies and civic endeavors. And we can make even more progress by working together—as citizens, not consumers—to strengthen laws and business practices increasing efficiency and reducing waste.”
The essays reveal how people are happier in more equitable societies, instead of the conventional wisdom that people are happier with more stuff. We are guided to lay down some of our addiction to technology, and to be more mindful. We learn of the good work and thinking of many people who have helped others learn to sustain happiness.
Puanani Burgess, a Hawaiian Zen priest, runs workshops where she asks people to share three stories: all about their names, all about their communities, and all about their gifts. She explains that the last is not “a story of your skills, experiences, degrees, or titles. It’s difficult because talking about your gifts can seem like bragging, which makes many people uncomfortable.” The outcome is that people begin to think about what a society would be like if it were gift-based instead of skill-based.
In the last section we are given many fine examples of successes building bridges with families, neighbors, and communities. There are practical tips for meeting your neighbors and finding significant ways to bond with all those around you, young and old. And last but not least, we are reminded of how we can find solace and strength from nature.
On the surface, Sustainable Happiness seemed like a “Pollyanna” approach to life on Earth, and I had already read too much of that kind of writing. But as I probed the book’s depth of understanding and the breadth of its examples, I found much to inspire me. I come away excited to share this book with others, to discuss and explore its ideas, and to see how I can improve my daily practices to be more present and thoughtful in all that I do.