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Is happiness the key to sustainability?

Ideas from the annual Sustainability and Environmental Research Symposium

- April 3, 2013

Catherine O'Brien presents at the Sustainability and Environmental Research Symposium.
Catherine O'Brien presents at the Sustainability and Environmental Research Symposium.

Sustainable climate, sustainable food…sustainable happiness?

It may seem silly at first glance, but Catherine O’Brien, the keynote speaker at the ninth annual Sustainability and Environmental Research Symposium at Dalhousie, is serious about her research into how individual, community or global happiness can contribute to a sustainable world without ruining the environment for future generations.

“Think about one of the happiest or most enjoyable moments in a natural environment,” said Dr. O’Brien said to the audience at the March 15 event. She gave the group a minute to consider before continuing.

“What did you notice about people?” She observed during that short minute, there was high energy in the room, smiling and animated hand gestures. There was an instant rapport between strangers.

“I didn’t have to define happiness,” Dr. O’Brien said after the activity. Her question: how to get people interested in sustainability who might not generally think about it?

“We have to think about well-being and sustainability together,” O’Brien concluded. Sustainability is not just about the environment; it involves cultural, environmental and social aspects.

As a professor and researcher at Cape Breton University (CBU), Dr. O’Brien is transferring her research into the classroom, and getting students thinking about how “we can make people healthier by making them happier.” In the classroom, she assigns activities such as a gratitude letter, a “buy nothing day” and a Sustainable Happiness Footprint Chart where her students chart how each activity they do in a day makes them feel. It’s about shifting consumption and thinking about the ways in which people feel genuine wealth and happiness without making a negative ecological footprint.

Her research is being applied through the course at CBU, in the nursing program, as a directed reading for Stanford University and even as a course offered to the community.

“No matter what field you’re in, I think there’s a connection to sustainable happiness,” said Dr. O’Brien. She says that students graduating from a sustainability program can help us think about how we can think outside the box, and create opportunities of education to create a more sustainable generation.

Sharing student research


The Sustainability and Environmental Research Symposium is co-hosted by the Elizabeth May Chair in Sustainability and Environmental Health, located in the Faculty of Science’s Environmental Science program and held by Daniel Rainham, and the College of Sustainability.

Students from academic programs as varied as Biology, Engineering, the Marine Affairs Program and ESS (Environment, Sustainability and Society) presented their original research in poster form as part of the symposium’s poster presentations.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to show the results of their original research,” said Susan Tirone, associate director of the College of Sustainability. “It’s a really wonderful example of a critical mass of young researchers coming together.”

Mirjam Held, a Marine Affairs Program master's student, entered the poster presentation as a skill-building experience, because “Who’s going to read a 200-page thesis?” Her graduate project, presented on the poster, looks at how better co-management of narwhals in Nunavut could contribute to the sustainability of the species.



Other posters were presented as part of the Sustainability 4000 class, a capstone class in which students engage in a research project through a client in the community.

Brad Fogelman, a fourth-year student, teamed with Green Schools Nova Scotia to help design a high school extracurricular credit. The high school students can complete 110 hours through participating in a “green team” and participate in activities such as establishing an environmental club or host a waste cleanup.

“It tries to incorporate applied knowledge – get us some real world work experience before going out into the real world,” Fogelman said about the class.

First-year Sustainability student Christen Kong came to check out the posters to see what she’ll be doing in the future.

“I love Sustainability because it allows a broad perspective from all different faculties,” she said. “It motivates me to study more and be passionate about something I love.”


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