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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 06/10/2006

I gave a talk on Positive Psychology last week at a CIPFA conference in Northern Ireland. (For those who don’t know they are the main body for public sector accountants.) The speaker before me was Jonathon Porritt, the leading UK environmentalist. He gave an interesting, if challenging, presentation on the environment and the need for action. One of the facts he gave during his talk which has stuck in my head ever since is that China is opening a new coal-fired power station every ten days. Another is that if China’s car ownership were to rise to US levels, three planets would be needed for the extra consumption of oil and resources.

Paradoxically, one glimmer of hope in what Porritt said is that the Chinese are already aware that they cannot continue on their present growth trajectory: they are already suffering from high levels of atmospheric pollution in their cities and falling levels of soil fertility. Another hopeful sign is that big businesses in the US, such as Walmart, were so appalled by what happened with Hurricane Katrina, that they are being much more serious about green issues.

Porritt confined most of his remarks to energy and consumption levels and the earth’s inability to cope. But he said very little about psychology. Recently the New Economics Foundation produced a research paper where they combined information about countries’ consumption of resources and wealth alongside data on the health and happiness of the population. What this research showed is that advanced societies, such as the UK, use a huge amount of resources (and so damage the earth) yet gain marginal benefit in terms of population levels of happiness and well-being.

There’s little doubt that the case for sustainable development is strengthened considerably if there is evidence to show that increasing levels of consumption, and our whole consumerist philosophy, is not necessary for increasing happiness and well-being. And this is precisely what many psychologists and economists are now arguing based on a growing body of research. Evidence from international studies shows that happiness, contentment and well-being are much more to be found in family, friends, meaning and the participation in work or activities which are stimulating, than in wealth or the consumption of goods.

This concern with what helps us lead good, fulfilling lives is at the core of Positive Psychology and, as the audience in Northern Ireland could see, an important pillar in the argument for a more sustainable future.

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