Physically we live closer to people than ever before but are we mentally more distant? I think, and feel, so! With "economic prosperity" we seem to have become less reliant on our local communities and we have lost important connections and bonds that can be good for our happiness. Our increasingly globalised and automated world can make it difficult to connect with other people in our daily lives. Connection with other human beings is extremely important for me and I am privileged enough to be able to reach out. I therefore volunteer myself to help others and invest time in my local community. I do my best to support the local economy and this is better for sustainability but also builds up better relations within the community. Transition Towns is an interesting movement which tackles mounting environmental issues at local levels and, according to the film "The Economics of Happiness", may also be a way to improve the stagnating happiness levels across the world.
How we choose to spend our money can affect others in both positive and negative ways, and I have tried to become more conscious about these possible effects. The earth remains the same size yet human desires rise - there are limits! Over the years I have become increasingly interested in living more sustainably as a way of improving the well-being of myself, others, and future generations.
Veganism: I try to be aware of what it is I'm actually putting in my body, where it comes from and how it makes me feel. The Ominvore's Dilemma is well worth a read for anyone interested in how food gets to their plate. Personally I do my best to follow a vegan diet. Our diets tend to be high in animal protein and increasingly many people are making changes to their diets whether it is veganism, vegetarianism, or just simple meat minimisation. Plant based diets do not only have substantial health benefits (see The China Study) but they also consume vastly less resources. For example, it would take more than 5 times as much land and 12 times as much water to produce one kilogram of beef (2470 calories) as it would to produce one kilogram of wheat (3400 calories). In addition beef production results in 20 times the amount of C02 emissions. Other interesting ideas about resource use in food production can be found in this Oxfam report. There is also a strong animal welfare component to my food choices and I have concerns over modern farming methods as highlighted by books such as Eating Animals, and not easy to watch films like Earthlings. Mark Rowlands makes an interesting contractarian defense of animal rights.
Freeganism: Sometimes my desires to follow a vegan diet can be in conflict with other values that I think can also contribute to greater well-being. For instance, freeganism, which embodies sustainable and ethical ways of living, is a movement that not only tries to highlight the amount of waste in our societies but also attempts to do something about it. Every day tonnes of perfectly edible food is thrown away, whether it is during harvest due to physical appearance, in restaurants, from our own fridges, or simply from supermarkets who didn't sell what they thought they would. This food could otherwise be consumed - sometimes I would rather consume something than see it go to waste. On a similar note, there is much greater room for the use of second hand goods (take a look at freecycle which is a website that helps you connect with people who want the things you no longer want). For an interesting story about waste watch Waste Land.
Alternative living: Over the years I have experimented with living in alternative ways. I have spent time in thriving communities, as well as spending time living in a tent. My desire to explore different ways to live started in 2010 when I was visiting my brother who was then volunteering for an international charity called Sadhana Forest. The main purpose of Sadhana Forest is to reforest and grow trees but the project is much more than that in that it is also about growing people. Sadhana Forest is based on permaculture principles and life there is simple, basic and beautiful - showering using a bucket of water that you have got from a well a small distance away, eating a local plant based diet, using compost toilets and sleeping in wooden huts...you get to observe the effects that you have on nature at this basic level. It was awareness raising and empowering. During my time there I came across so many ideas and met so many amazing and inspiring people. It was literally life changing.
Sadhana forest is a good example of a WWOOFing or Help-X project through which by the process of free exchange and mutual benefit people can contribute to important projects and also learn some interesting new skills. With the help of such sites I have found myself working on organic farms, renovating buildings with ecological materials, and living within many different alternative minded communities.
Getting from A to B: Cycling is easily my favourite way to travel - less stressful than sitting in traffic, hugely empowering, and great for one's health. I have done several cycle tours, including a tour through the UK and France covering over 4,500km. I also regularly participate in critical mass each month. Critical mass is where large numbers of cyclists get together, normally on the last Friday of each month in cities all over the world to have fun and cycle in safety. Probably your city has a Critical Mass but if it doesn't start one and join the fun. We have a blog for our Critical Mass ride in Edinburgh and a good film to watch about the Critical Mass movement is You Never Bike Alone.
I also enjoy hitch-hiking from time to time and have literally spent days on the road meeting some of the most inspiring and open-hearted people along the way. Hitch-Wiki gives a useful guide to hitch-hiking and here you can read about some of my experiences on the road.
The limits of more income in raising well-being:
I've always had some vague instinctual feeling that having a higher income wasn't that important in life but it wasn't completely clear to me just how unimportant until I began my PhD in psychology and began looking at "happiness equations" myself. Prior to my PhD I had obtained an MSc in economics and the thought of saying money wasn't important seemed like complete heresy. From a research perspective I have tried to understand why money isn't that important for happiness, and equally importantly, why people seem to strongly believe that money is more important than it actually is.
However, more personally, and in some senses more importantly, I have set about implementing some changes to my own life: If I get a pay rise I don't change my spending patterns so as to avoid getting used to a higher wage that has limited long term well-being benefit, I stopped wasting money on things that only reflected something about my status, and acknowledged that there are more important things in life worth spending time on. Although I find this is a continuous and iterative process it became clear to me during my PhD that my PhD wage would be more than enough for me and with that I could have everything that was really necessary and still have quite a bit left over. I still think this way and although I'm not on a PhD wage anymore I try to live like I still am. This not only helps cushion me against potential adverse income shocks but also means I can save money such that I can take time away between my research contracts to focus on other aspects of my life that are good for my happiness and the happiness of others (e.g. volunteering, local community involvement, spending more time on social relationships, my personal growth and empowerment).
Degrowth, alternative economies, and thoughts on where our money really goes:
I am interested in the degrowth movement which advocates the down-scaling of production and consumption as a way of dealing with many issues facing modern developed societies. An important idea behind degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require self-sacrifice (i.e. reduced individual and societal well-being). Generally I am interested in what we mean by growth anyway and I question why only one type of growth (economic growth) seems to dominate our political dialogue. There are many types of ways in which individuals and society can grow and develop that can be at odds with economic growth. Here, for example, is an interesting article about the "sharing economy" and what it might mean to live in a moneyless world. Personally I actively engage in many free-exchange activities (see e.g., WWOOF, Help-X, couchsurfing, warmshowers, freecycle) that have no doubt led to decreased "economic growth" but have in fact resulted in rises in my own personal happiness and the happiness of others through displays of generosity, interesting exchanges of ideas, and the development of skills. It seems important to me to personally question these concepts of "progress" and ask myself what they mean to me.
When I do spend money I care about where it goes. Although it is not always obvious there are often much better alternatives out there. As a rule I try to shop locally and with small companies that I trust. There are huge concerns highlighted in this great TED talk with having economies that are dominated by large multinational companies. Some companies have questionable ethical practices and it is my feeling that if we spend our money with such companies we are essentially championing such practices whether consciously or not. The Ethical Consumer website provides a very useful guide to the ethical practices of various companies with helpful ratings. I also like the Move Your Money campaign - if we don't like the banking practices of specific banks then we can take power away from them by banking elsewhere.
"be the change you want to see in the world" Mahatma Ghandi
How much do we consider the well-being of ourselves and others when we make important decisions about our lives? Sometimes, due to time pressures or societal expectations, it can be difficult to find and make the right choices that truly raise well-being. Personally I try to live out many aspects of my research in my everyday life and try to use my knowledge about well-being as a guide. I think it is important to live authentically and I try to focus my personal life around improving my own well-being and that of others.
As a subjective well-being researcher I really want society to listen to the important findings that come from well-being research but I think it is necessary to be prepared to listen to them myself. We can all change our lives in small and meaningful ways that could lead to greater well-being. Below I share a few ideas, with some interesting links, about how and why I have tried to change my life to foster greater well-being for myself and others. More about my endeavours and reflections on implementing findings from well-being research into my everyday life can be found on my personal blog.
I care about the relationship between my body and my mind. I generally try to be healthy and more aware of what I am putting in my body and the impact that my decisions might have on my entire system. I've not always had a healthy attitude toward my mind and body. When I was younger I used to live a very unhealthy lifestyle of excess and after years of experimentation I began to feel that most of my "excesses" were as a result of not wanting to face myself. Gradually I begun to make small changes to my life that have had a profound and lasting impact. Physical activity is important to me. I initially just began running to clear my mind a little bit but this eventually led to a strong desire for getting outdoors generally and I picked up a strong appreciation for the physical world around me. Nowadays I like to cycle and walk in really beautiful places as it gives me a oneness with nature and really helps to calm me.
I am very interested in living a person-centred approach to life - promoting conditions such that I, and others, can develop a better sense of self - full of unconditional acceptance, autonomy, spontaneity, and authenticity. I am an advocate the use of nondirective counselling therapy. I have both published research on the effectiveness of psychological therapy and also had my own personal experiences engaging in the counselling process. Often the use of such psychological therapies can be unfairly stigmatised but it is important to realise that such therapies can be hugely effective no matter where we are on the well-being spectrum. In fact a huge aspect of positive psychology, of which my subjective well-being research is part of, is about how we can help people shine during relatively benign conditions. The positive psychology movement has moved psychology away from an over-focus on the negative.
From time-to-time I meditate, but generally I try to be more present in my everyday actions. This has helped me in my understanding of myself and the world. The idea behind meditation is to help us focus on the now without being distracted by sometimes meaningless and frustrating thoughts and emotions about the past or future. In psychology the idea of being attentive of the present situation from moment-to-moment is referred to as mindfulness and being mindful can reduce stress and elevate positive moods.