Sustainability is generally defined as the capacity to endure. But for most of us, endurance conjures up images of “getting by” or even suffering while pretending to enjoy ourselves. Most people want to do more than endure: thriving would be nice. The same must go for the planet.
For this reason, resolutions to simplify our lives are just as important as those passionate goals mentioned above. In fact, they go hand in hand. Here’s why.
Remove the psychological ephemera and first world stress that comes with a hectic, overly consumptive lifestyle and what have you got? A saner, happier existence, complete with more time on your hands; more room to think; and often, better emotional and physical health.
But there’s more. Research suggests that simplifying our lifestyles won’t only help make us healthier, happier people. Simplifying can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb spending, thereby reducing the amount of waste ending up in our landfills. Could it be that what makes us happy is also good for the planet?
First published in 2012, the World Happiness Report summarizes the well-being of citizens from 156 countries around the globe and provides this data as a touchstone for public policy. An initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and other partners, the report has definitive ideas about what constitutes happiness. But can we apply some of these findings to our individual lives to both increase our personal happiness and contribute to our planet’s growing need for sustainability? We certainly think so.
The following list provides some recommendations to incorporate into your New Year’s resolutions for 2016.
1. Decide how busy you want to be now
Once upon a time North Americans set aside one day each week for resting. Stores closed. People breakfasted together, at the table, at the same time. Others read the paper, slowly, from their armchairs, while children craned their necks to peek at the funnies; or went for lengthy walks in the rising mist to appreciate the season’s varied palette and consider the week ahead.
Today, many people face enormous pressure to participate in a full slate of activities every day of the week. This pressure grows exponentially when children join the mix. An empty space on the calendar suggests a space that could be filled by an activity—but not if you fill it first.
Take some time to consider how busy you really want to be this year, and then schedule regular “family times” or “do-nothing days” on the calendar. Honor those commitments when these days arrive. Chances are you will be more than happy to savor the spaciousness.
2. Organize and streamline your material giving
Want to avoid the stress (or guilt) that comes along with forgetting a birthday or anniversary? Record those dates on your calendar now and set reminders for card or gift mailing dates before the year gets underway.
January is also a good time of year to check in with family members and friends to revisit some of those gift-giving assumptions. For example, does everyone want to continue exchanging gifts in the coming year? Is there something else you’d like to do individually or collectively that could help simplify some of those traditions?
Consider drawing a single name next Christmas, confining gift-giving to the children in your family, or scheduling a shared vacation instead of sending birthday presents throughout the year. Other resources, like the SoKind gift registry offer alternatives worth discussing with family and friends for birthdays and religious holidays.
3. Shrink your “to-do” list
For anyone on a sustainable living path, this resolution can be a hard one. Got land? Then you probably have dreams to go with it: gardens, greenhouses, a backyard chicken flock, perhaps a few turkeys and a milk cow. Or what about that list of home improvement projects you’ve been thinking about?
One step at a time: clutter causes psychological stress, not to mention waste. Be honest with yourself when considering the coming year. How many projects can you actually complete? Reduce your list to a handful and target them one at a time. Set realistic timelines, and if something is a multi-year project, break it into smaller, achievable phases. Maybe that apple orchard can wait until next year—after the fence posts are in the ground, instead of just ideas on the table.
4. Reduce online socializing and cultivate real community
While many people enjoy keeping up with friends on social media, studies have shown that one of the strongest factors predicting happiness is the quality of an individual’s relationships (as opposed to the quantity of one’s “friends.”) One study in Neuroscience even determined that the same brain regions active during social isolation are those that are active during physical pain. In contrast, behavior that increases social bonds also increases happiness in adults and children. This behavior includes altruism (caring about the welfare of others).
When you consider the year ahead, think about which social activities feed your sense of well-being. Streamlining or eliminating superficial connections that focus on building up your ego versus building real community may leave you with greater satisfaction and less time invested in mindless interactions. Consulting resources like Good Times Made Simple: The Lost Art of Fun (published by the Centre for a New American Dream) can help you build new foundations for spending quality time with the people who matter most.
5. Adopt a practice of mindfulness
The concept of mindfulness—or the practice of paying attention to the moment—has been around for millennia, but has only recently received serious attention by scientists. Several studies summarized in The World Happiness Report 2015 indicate a correlation between mind wandering and lack of well-being. It appears that the more distracted we are as individuals, the more unhappy we become. In addition, practicing mindfulness also resulted in “decreased attachment and decreased influence of wanting” for subjects in the studies.
So what does this mean for the average person? Apparently practicing mindfulness can help you want less, and wanting less, according to the study, means increased happiness. Wanting less must also have positive ramifications for our personal lives and the planet, which could include less impulse spending and less overall consumption.
And while a mindfulness practice could include things like meditating or yoga, The Harvard Business Review recently published an article suggesting that simply watching your breath go “in and out” for two minutes a day (in addition to being aware of your surroundings) was a viable start to practicing mindfulness.
Making Resolutions Stick
Although New Year’s resolutions can be difficult to accomplish as the year goes on, planning to decrease or eliminate activities adds spaciousness to the mix versus piling on one more thing to accomplish. Resolutions that help you cope with your everyday and reduce impacts on the planet are worthy of your consideration. This year, consider simplifying for health, happiness, and sustainability. What could be simpler?
Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). The pain of social disconnection: Examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 13(6).
Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. 2015. World Happiness Report 2015. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Achor, Shawn, and Michelle Gielan. The Busier You Are, the More You Need Mindfulness, Harvard Business Review, December 18, 2015, www.hbr.org.