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Sustainable Happiness



What is Sustainable Happiness?


One of our co-workers at COPA, Anissah, is a recent graduate of Dawson College in Montreal (Congratulation Anissah!). Prior to graduating, they presented, along with 3 other students, a workshop on Achieving Sustainable Happiness for the faculty at Dawson. Sustainable Happiness (SH) is a theory and a practice that advocates intentionality in creating habits that will bring more well-being into our lives. Catherine O’ Brien, who developed the theory, defines SH as “happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations”.


In today’s virtual reality, pursuing a sustainable happiness mindset can actually be lifesaving. The isolation of this constantly virtual, contact-less new world we live in is not a natural environment that is conducive to happiness, and this is why we are turning our attention (and yours!) to this helpful process.


I chatted a bit about SH with Anissah in order to better understand what it offers us. The way they see it is that SH is not just a theoretical construct but in fact a very practical and effective way of turning our attention to the well-being of ourselves in relation to the well-being of others (our community), and in relation to the well-being of the environment.


Anissah suggests that much of the dysfunction we currently live internally and in relationship with each other and with nature is a result of the way that success is measured in our world. SH advocates slowing down and stepping back within ourselves from the daily rush of this busy and constantly productive society in which we are always doing, doing, doing - in order to reflect on our lives; weighing and examining our individual values, capacities, and interconnectedness. We begin with ourselves (the first pillar of SH): with a pause, a moment of reflection, and a desire to explore where we find true and real satisfaction. We consider where instead of what matters deeply to us, we may have tied up our self-worth to only what we can accomplish, produce, or consume.


Once we begin to discover what brings us lasting joy and fulfillment in life, then we can move step by step, and in our own time, to develop daily practices that increase personal well-being and move us closer to those sources of joy and fulfillment. Anissah stresses that this begins with understanding our capacity, being compassionate with ourselves and our limits, and then finding the simplest of ways to move ahead. Sometimes even just the intention or desire to begin this process is an important first step, and enough to change how we think about and see things. We notice, for example, that having more and consuming more may not really bring us more happiness.


The second pillar of Sustainable Happiness is a recognition of our profound interconnectedness with each other and the necessity of it for our individual well-being. Often we tend to measure our value to others in the same limited way we measure our value to ourselves – by how busy and productive we are. SH encourages us to slow dow and connect with each other on a regular basis more deeply and intentionally, and in ways that nurture us as individuals and as communities. In our new virtual reality, this can be challenging, but Anissah suggests considering what we did pre-COVID and then adapting it to our new virtual reality. At work, this can look like sharing good news with each other and having stretching breaks during online meetings, diving into impromptu dance parties, and planning regularly scheduled informal get-togethers with each other outside work meetings. For example, the intensity of the work we do at COPA, and the accountability and reflection required of us on a daily basis in this work can be balanced and healed by moments of fun and relaxation together that we carve out intentionally – even online.


With our families and friends, we can plan regular visits, online card and trivia games, etc. Some families have actually become closer during the pandemic as they discovered the joys of regular Zoom reunions with each other.


The third pillar of Sustainable Happiness is our connection to the natural world and our responsibility as guardians of the environment. We can make choices that are good for us and also good for the planet. Some of the active practices of SH involve plogging (jogging and picking up trash) and walking or cycling whenever we can, as opposed to using cars. Another practice is around making sustainable choices when buying food, coffee, or chocolate for example - not denying ourselves these little pleasures in life, but partaking of them in a way that is good for us and also for the health of the environment (and thus good for the community too). And again, in interrogating (gently and with compassion) our attachment to materialism, we reflect on what we really need to be happy and how much of it we actually need.


At the end of our conversation, Anissah shared some of their intentional practices for Sustainable Happiness:

  • Journaling

  • Creating a stable and established routine to take care of themselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically

  • Taking the time to regularly and intentionally connect with family members, friends, and roommates, organizing family reunions

  • Biophilia! Since nature regulates our nervous systems, Anissah intentionally increases their well-being by cultivating a pocket of nature in their apartment in the city. Speaking with Anissah was wonderful not only because of this intriguing subject but also because the room around them was full of beautiful green plants!


After this conversation, I thought of what my own intentional practices would be for Sustainable Happiness, and here is what I came up with:

  • A morning routine that includes walking, yoga, and meditation (and self-compassion when I skip days here and there!)

  • Having my dog around and underfoot all the time

  • Speaking often with my sisters, sons, and friends

  • Buying food from local growers

Take a moment and consider: what would be some of your intentional practices?


Applying Sustainable Happiness to our Work


During the COVID-19 pandemic, students everywhere have experienced increased stress and isolation due to security measures such as school closures and online learning. COPA’s newly developed workshop on resilience in youth (Stimuler et favoriser la resilience chez les jeunes in French) was designed to address this, and is centred around the practices of Sustainable Happiness.


In this workshop, we explore the challenges that students are presently facing. They will have the opportunity to share their experiences with each other and also the strategies and resources that have helped them to get through the pandemic so far. We will discuss the difference between positive and toxic stress, and identify strategies to manage both. In addition, we will explore the concepts of well-being, and of individual and collective resilience. Students will acquire additional strategies, skills, and resources to help build their resilience and find support during stressful times.


This new workshop is funded by the Ministry of Education, and we hope to make it available in September 2021. For the moment it will be offered free of charge in French only in Ontario, and available for purchase outside of Ontario.


COPA would like to thank Catherine O’Brien, who developed the theory of Sustainable Happiness, and Jennifer De Vera who inspired the presentation of the workshop Anissah and others did at Dawson College.