mental health · Neature Feature

Teaching Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being: A Response to O’Brien (2013)

O’Brien’s article begins with an introduction to the concept of sustainable happiness which she states is a happiness that contributes to individual, community, and global well-being without exploiting others, the environment, or future generations. O’Brien states that the discourse of happiness is a recent phenomenon, and only gained importance with the help of the media, scientific research, and the United Nations work on the Global Happiness Index. O’Brien argues that sustainable happiness goes hand-in-hand with economic and ecological sustainability, as the lifestyle choices we make that enhance the lives of others (i.e. fair trade products, volunteering) reward us with a positive sense of well-being.

O’Brien then raises the question as to how we achieve a more sustainable future? And she arrives at the logical answer that sustainability education should fall into the realm of public education. But, as O’Brien points out, teachers are not being trained to model or instruct sustainability. Even in the rare circumstance that a sustainable education class does exist, O’Brien argues that the course is textbook delivered and theory-based rather than results-oriented action-based learning which would foster sustainable lifestyles.

O’Brien also discusses positive psychology and happiness education, focussing on a happiness course at Cape Breton University. O’Brien discusses how this course teaches students to think critically about happiness and how it is manifested, in their lives and the lives of others; this allows them to make decisions in their lives that lead to a greater sense of well-being, and ultimately these decisions result in sustainable happiness. O’Brien uses this data to support her argument that sustainable happiness should be incorporated into all facets of the education sector, including policy and curricula.

O’Brien closes with a reflection on the mental health of students and teachers, stating that the future of the education system must be a focus on the importance of happiness and well-being. She states that the education system does not exist in a vacuum, separate from the rest of society; it is intertwined with all other aspects of social life, and must therefore be a reflection of that society.


I agree with Catherine O’Brien that happiness and well-being are of critical importance in today’s society, and that the responsibility for teaching sustainable happiness falls to society’s educators. Fortunately, it is already a responsibility of teachers to emulate and instill in their students an appreciation of and stewardship for the natural environment; sustainable happiness goes hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship. Scientific research has proven that time spent in nature directly correlates with positive physical and mental health. Critically thinking about the natural environment and its positive effects on human life fosters a love of nature and a desire to protect it for the future.

I think that the idea of a happiness course in university is incredibly valuable, and I wish that it was a course I could have taken. As I grow older I am faced with an increasing number of responsibilities and it seems as though I have less and less time to care for myself and my happiness. I think that this is an experience shared by a majority of young adults, and perhaps even by students in elementary and high school. In the absence of a happiness course, how can we help ourselves and our students to negotiate the complex responsibilities with which we are presented?

I think that foremost it is crucial that teachers are caring, compassionate individuals who build rapport with their students. Having a teacher who cares about a student’s well-being is the first step to teaching sustainable happiness. I also think that teachers should openly discuss the importance of mental health with their students, regardless of age, and students should be taught how to self-assess their well-being, and practise expressing their feelings with their peers; an open dialogue presents an opportunity for sharing and self-discovery. Lastly, I think that instruction regarding sustainable happiness and well-being should be part of classroom instruction, whether it is in the curriculum or not. Understanding the concept of sustainable happiness and how it is achieved without exploiting ourselves, others, or our environment is a crucial element of social understanding, and the inquiry-based learning opportunities are unlimited.


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