sustainable well-being sustainable living and lasting happiness

Sustainable Well-Being Lasting Happiness Sustainable Living

Partake Co-Create Sustainable Well-Being Happiness

Theory & Definitions

Sustainable Well-Being urges the alignment of the two fields: sustainability and well-being. Separately both areas seek to inform policy making in order to ultimately increase well-being and together they can strengthen this important endeavour.

Well-being research can enhance clarity of the final aims of sustainability processes, whilst sustainability can facilitate an all-inclusive increase in well-being enhanced by interconnectedness (see the visual representation to the right).

Below we further discuss:

  • How sustainability research can enhance all-inclusive well-being.
  • How our pursuit of individual’s happiness in isolation can lead to unsustainable living.
  • How well-being research can clarify the aims of sustainability processes.
  • How You are theoretically urged to be involved; and how you can
    contribute practically through Action.
  • Sustainability

  • Well-Being

  • Sustainable Well-Being


  • Strong SustainabilityWeak Sustainability
  • Weak SustainabilityStrong Sustainability


In 1987 a UN initiative defined sustainability as involving development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (p.24). Often sustainability is presented as a visual model. Probably the most common illustration is that of three circles overlapping each other in a Venn diagram. The circles represent the environment, the society, and the economy; here sustainability is found where the three circles converge (see the left model). Another common illustration of sustainability acknowledges that economy is a subset of society and that both the society and the economy must act within the limits of the environment (see the right model).

  • Sustainability Modelsdescription


Since the original definition of sustainability, many variations of the definition have been suggested. For example consider some of the many different models of sustainability found online in the picture to the right.


Partially, this is because sustainability includes values such as:
What should be sustained? Over how long time period? In exchange of what other socially desirable aims?

In terms of well-being aims, this specifically concerns:
What kind of well-being? Psychological or Physical needs/well-being? Only human orientated needs?

In answering these questions it is important to understand the nature of well-being and under the Well-Being tab you can read about how well-being research can help to clarify these questions. Below we will demonstrate how sustainability can enhance well-being research.

Focus on Interconnectedness

An essential contribution from the sustainability field is the focus on interconnectedness or interdependencies. Sustainability does not focus on one activity in isolation, but rather it represents an ongoing process accounting for how various activities (systems) influence each other. The aims involve many perspectives, which are all-inclusive.

Goals are achieved in consideration of other goals.

Importantly, this relates to a critique raised against well-being and positive psychology research that one person's happiness can be the source of someone else's unhappiness (Lazarus, 2003). In this respect, a sustainability perspective can increase the all-inclusiveness of well-being aims. The importance of all-inclusive aims and the possibility to enhance the pursuit of happiness are further introduced in the Interconnectedness section.

Constraints or Catalysts

Sustainability could be seen as a framework of constraints to achieve other aims. That is, the aim is to meet needs alongside the insistence that these needs should be reached in a sustainable manner. However, considering the importance of interconnectedness for human well-being, these can also be seen as catalysts that enhance and strengthen well-being in the longer term. Within current well-being research it is important to highlight that interconnectedness can increase a person's well-being:

Your personal pursuit of happiness can be supported by the well-being of others and nature: hence sustainability can be beneficial to all.

Balanced Adaptive Processes

To achieve all-inclusive aims, sustainability is not seen as a fixed state but rather as ongoing processes of change (Meppem & Gill, 1998). It is aiming to adaptively balance different needs and aims, for example relating to conserving nature, economical goals, increasing human well-being and other goals. In terms of well-being, this aspect is important since it emphasises context and the importance of balancing many different needs.

Concerning Everyone

In considering all these different values, perspectives and aims, sustainability research recognises and emphasises the importance of everyone's participation and involvement within the processes.

In order to enhance our pursuit of happiness, Sustainable Well-Being stresses that we talk more confidently about human's place and purpose, worldviews, and lifestyles.

That everyone is involved highlights (the need to consider/accommodate) different perspectives. This in turn results in a more profound understanding; which can improve the selection of different solutions, make the implementation of different measures more effective and decrease conflicts between people.

You can find different ways to participate in the discussion or different ways to act; or you can continue to read about how well-being research can clarify the sustainability process in the well-being tab.


Well-being generally concerns optimal experiences and functioning. Two well known happiness researchers, Ryan and Deci (2000) explain that " how we define well-being influences our practices of government, teaching, therapy, parenting, and preaching, as all such endeavours aim to change humans for the better, and thus requires some vision of what 'the better' is" (p.142). Naturally, this vision is important for sustainability processes as it is essential to determine the nature of its actual aims. We all need to think carefully about what type of well-being we pursue (hence the Discuss section) and how we go about it (hence the Action section). There are currently several different theories on well-being. These are grouped into the following two categories:

  • Subjective Well-Being HappinessSubjective Well-Being Model
  • PANAS Positive emotions happiness ModelPANAS Model


The Hedonic Approach: Well-being is conceptualized as involving the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Happiness equates with high levels of positive emotions and low levels of negative emotions. The most commonly applied theory within the hedonic approach is called Subjective Well-Being; which also measures satisfaction with life (see the two visual representations to the right). This approach is mainly developed by Ed Diener and colleagues (1995).




  • Psychological Well-Being Happiness ModelPsychological Well-Being Model
  • Eudaimonic Well-Being Happiness ModelEudaimonic Well-Being Model



The Eudaimonic Approach: Holds that not all pleasures or positive emotions lead to well-being. Instead the focus is on self-realisation and self-development, whereby well-being is conceptualised as the extent to which an individual is fully functioning. One commonly used theory within the eudaimonic approaches is called Psychological Well-Being, developed by Carol Ryff (1989), see the first visual representation on the right for details regarding what factors it includes. On the far right you find a more recent approach called Eudaimonic Well-Being, developed by Alan Waterman and colleagues(2010).


Research, however, seems to suggest that a balance between the two approaches is ideal (e.g. Ryan and Deci, 2000). However, in contrast to the sustainability framework and all-inclusive aims, it can be argued that current hedonic and eudaimonic well-being theories (as well as many self-help techniques) focus too much on the individual, in isolation from other systems such as others and nature.

Satisfaction and Self-realisation versus Balance/Harmony and Adjusting

Current well-being theories certainly capture an individual's needs, as seen above. However it could be argued that these are too focused on an individual's perspective and therefore only measure a narrow sense of well-being.

For example, the emotions that are emphasised and measured are characterised as self-absorbing and detached from others and nature (Kjell, 2011); such as feeling determined and proud rather than being focused on, for example, love for, or developing and maintaining harmony with others and nature as well.

Also, satisfaction and self-realisation can be seen as rather self-centred. For example there is an emphasis on an individual's self-chosen self-realisation and self-development as well as satisfaction with life which is in accordance with the individual's expectations. However, in contrast, when Antonella Delle Fave (2011) and colleagues asked participants in 7 different countries about well-being and happiness they concluded that psychological balance/harmony is also very important for an individual's well-being. This involves aiming to be more at peace and harmony with one's situation rather than always assuming the situation should be in accordance with one's expectations. Thus, –where possible– in terms of well-being it is also important to adapt oneself and be attuned to one’s surroundings.

A person characterised as high in well-being ought to be in harmony with themselves, others and nature.

Similarly, an area of research initiated by Rothbaum, Weiz and colleagues (1982) points out a current overemphasis on primary control - a person's ability to alter the surroundings to suit their wishes. This idea of 'environmental mastery' works at the expense of secondary control - a person's ability to accept and adjust themselves to their surroundings. This body of research illustrates that both these control processes within an adaptive balance is important for a person's well-being (for an example see our "Reuse Water Bottle Labels" tool).

While existing well-being theories are valuable, it is also important to highlight characteristics addressing, for example, being in harmony with as well as adapting and adjusting oneself to social and natural surroundings.

For a visual example see models below summing up what Sustainable Well-Being suggests could bring more balance to existing well-being theories. This balance can be reached within the sustainability framework involving balanced processes. This also addresses the critique within well-being research that an individual's happiness can be at the expense of someone else's happiness. Therefore it is important that we discuss our pursuit of happiness and definition of goals in relation to the context of the social and natural environment.

Inside the dotted circles we illustrate the current well-being theory meanwhile the outside we show our suggestions of dimensions and elements that we believe, with the right balance, can enhance the current conceptions of happiness and well-being.

  • Adjusted Subjective Well-Being HappinessAdjusted Subjective Well-Being Model
  • Adjusted Adapted positive emotions PANAS happinessAdapted PANAS
  • Adapted Psychological Well-Being HappinessAdapted Psychological Well-Being
  • Adapted Eudaimonic Well-Being HappinessAdapted Eudaimonic Well-Being







Sustainble Well-Being Extensive ModelDrawing from the previous two tabs, Sustainable Well-Being links well-being research to sustainability processes. This involves increasing the sustainability of well-being approaches as well as increasing the clarity of the final aims of sustainability processes. In terms of sustainability processes, well-being research can help to clarify what needs that ought to be reached. In terms of pursuing happiness, it addresses interconnectedness and all-inclusive aims. It promotes a holistic and balanced perspective (that is reached within adaptively balanced processes). Importantly this involves that everyone discuss values and constraints. Eventually, this can result in a more all-inclusive and longer-lasting happiness.

Since Sustainable Well-Being urges everyone to be involved in what well-being entails and what might positively sustain our evolving societies, you are encouraged to join the discussion; for example you can discuss:

How would you define happiness and well-being? What makes you happy in life?

How do You combine sustainable living and happiness?

Also Sustainable Well-Being highlights that one cannot only satisfy one's own needs but there is also the need to adjust oneself to the needs of others and nature. It involves being in tune with your surroundings.

Therefore, we are creating a Sustainable Well-being tool kit which contains suggestions of some interventions that you can use to enhance Sustainable Well-Being. Here are some evidence based intervention tools to start with: Action.

You can find further theoretical research relevant for Sustainable Well-Being under the Interconnectedness tab.