Art’s Role in Freeing Society from Unsustainable Happiness
at work @ SEA Foundation Tilburg 2022
this text was commissioned
by SEA Foundation
as part of the research
fold #03 on happiness
‘How to perceive sustainability in relation to Happiness?
Art’s Role in Freeing Society from Unsustainable Happiness
In this piece, I will share the potential art has to lift our society out of unsustainable pursuits of happiness. Specifically, art has the potential to provide alternative possibilities, flow, and shared experience. Before sharing how, however, I will contextualize happiness as I have come to understand it from researching the links between sustainability and happiness for 15 years. I have also drawn inspiration as a creative soul guided by the land as a farmer and natural builder. Happiness has long been a focus of individuals, society, and our collective shared experience. The term has many definitions and perspectives including a subjective appreciation of one’s life as a whole (Rojas & Veenhoven, 2013), the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain (Mill, 1863), a state of contentment and life-satisfaction (Rojas & Veenhoven, 2013), experiences of joy (Lama et al., 2016), or flourishing (Seligman, 2012), and fulfilment, meaning and purpose (Ryan & Deci, 2001). The term can be more deeply explored within typical internet browser searches, chatting with a friend or family member, or even feeling deep within.
For this piece, I want to highlight some concepts borne from philosophy, where happiness has been discussed as having two components or fields of research – hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (fulfilment/meaning) (Ryan & Deci, 2001). Debate exists on whether accumulated pleasure can result in fulfilment and meaning (Ryan and Deci, 2001) and, while this may or may not be the case, it has significant implications for our shared planet (Cloutier et al., 2020). In short, the modern ways we pursue happiness, mostly as pleasure, demand extensive natural resources (Cloutier et al., 2020). We consume at the expense of our planet and others, particularly the Global South, from where many resources are stolen and extracted. More, the extraction is unable to be felt or experienced by the biggest consumers as the land we take resources from is not close to home. Worst, our bodies have evolved to habituate and adapt to our environment and the material goods and resources it includes (Nesse, 2004; Cloutier et al., 2020). In other words, the more we have, the less we may value it and the more we may desire. Such a state can be a toxic condition, as one seeks to find pleasure to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression that are growing at alarming rates in modern society (Salari et al., 2020).
What I have just described is what many folks in sustainability would refer to as a wicked problem (Rittel & Webber, 1974). This approach and legacy are one borne of colonial empires that decimated indigenous communities who were more attuned to their land, ritual, and ceremonies that supported happiness as meaning and fulfilment. Their ancestors remain, carrying invaluable knowledge and wisdom and we have a responsibility to make reparations and (un)learn. Yet, resources continue to be stolen and sent back to colonizers’ settlements to maintain a steady stream of pleasure, although this leaves many of us feeling incomplete and isolated (Putnam, 2000). When this individual trait is expressed collectively, we experience large scale implications like climate change, inequity and pandemics travelling through global vectors within degraded ecosystems. All that said, there is hope. Happiness as fulfilment and purpose can be a remedy to what we are currently seeking in the form of pleasure.
Abraham Maslow (1943) is famous for his theory of human motivation, the Hierarchy of Needs, where basic needs were pursued and met to achieve higher needs like esteem and self-actualization. The hierarchy is not actually meant to be hierarchical, in that the top of his pyramid isn’t necessarily reliant on the bottom. More, much like the biodiversity pyramid where soil is the foundation, the more diverse the base (the soil), the more diverse the top (apex predators). In similar ways, if a healthy population of apex predators is present to maintain an ecosystem’s balance, a healthy indicator of a happy community might be the number of self-actualized humans. Self-actualization, however, has become challenging in a modern society where we are biased to consume, are fed fear-based rhetoric in the media, and encouraged to pursue college degrees that deeply indebt us under the promise of eventual success (i.e., jobs, status, material wealth). In many ways, we are foregoing current happiness in the promise of future happiness – and we need pleasure to keep us going.
Maslow later realized that self-transcendence might be the top of his hierarchy, as well. One can think of self-actualizing as “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Krems, 2017, p. 382). Self-transcendence, on the other hand, can be thought of as a “decreasing reliance on externals for the definition of the self, increasing interiority and spirituality, and a greater sense of connectedness with past and future generations” (Levenson et. al, 2005, p. 127). For me, self-actualization is a process of playing with a variety of “selves”, where I might be a different version of self with my colleagues than I would be with my children, and so on. Yet, I still hold certain truths about my actualized self in most spaces: to be loving, open, and my version of myself (i.e., the way I dress). In other words, self-actualizing can be a process of learning, guided by what we feel called to be in and across the spaces we inhabit – it is a creative practice, an art! Through enough practice, one might realize there are many selves we can embody, along with a self we might want to exhibit regardless of the environment we are in. This opens the space to experience self-transcendence, recognizing we are part of a deeply interconnected and interdependent human experience. Considering the definition of self-transcendence above, one might realize just how invaluable self-transcendence can be for sustainability. Self-transcendence, or the possibility of seeing more than the self, becomes an experience of exploring a shared and collective happiness. Even more, one might see how art as a form of expressive communication promotes self-actualization and self-transcendence.
Art as Possibilities
Art has long been the expression of creativity and it is one simultaneously valued and undervalued in our society. What art provides is a container in which we can express our creativity as individuals and as a community – where we can express actualized states of being that transcend self. Here, art allows us to envision and manifest endless possibilities that are not contained in social constructs or conditions. In some ways, the act of creation is a limitless potential to explore real world challenges. From a happiness perspective, the act of creation awakens a sense of self that envisions more potently and sees alternative potential. When situated in the context of sustainability, art is the medium to create alternative paradigms to address some of our pressing issues like climate change and inequity. When combined, art can be the medium that weaves together experiences of happiness that transcend self-interest and instead promote collective being.
Art as Flow
Art has two flows from a happiness perspective, one a state and one as an opening. Happiness has been researched as a state of flow (Cszikzentmihalyi et al., 2014), where one loses self-consciousness. The experience is still being understood in a scientific context, though it is one many of us have felt. An example often shared is making a walk or drive home and getting there, suddenly realizing we don’t remember the trip, but our body somehow arrived safely. Art can be a similar medium. As a natural home builder, I have lost awareness of time and space, while connecting deeply with the mud and earth that was sculpting me as much as I was it. More powerfully, art can be an opening to a flow of knowing that is beyond the mind and connected to a universal consciousness we all have access to. When we open ourselves to that potential, magnificent expressions can come through leaving us in higher states of happiness. More, when happiness and sustainability are a shared vision in an artistic space, the experience can result in flows and outcomes not capable through the human mind.
Art as Shared Experience
Perhaps the most powerful experience of art is its ability to provide space for shared experience. Whether intended or not, one’s art can move its observer into a new state of being that seeks to be actualized. More, art as a practice can allow one to feel the shared experience of collective states like trauma, war, and peace. The most meaningful art, often referred to as beautiful, is art that channels these states into an experience of harmony. It is in this state of harmony that happiness and sustainability can intersect as a remedy for feelings of apathy, shame and guilt for our global challenges. In my time researching happiness and sustainability, I have been guided to return home to the art of farming, natural building and applied shamanism. What I have learned here is that a state of observation and allowing for inspiration to flow through me results in magical outputs (i.e., abundant gardens). There is no comparison as an output from the thinking mind. Here I am, calling our inner artists to support our collective happiness as transcendence beyond externally imposed selves. Let’s create our happy and sustainable future together, actualized, and transcendent.
Scott Cloutier, PhD, is Assistant Professor, Sustainability and Happiness at the School of Sustainability and Director of the Sustainability and Happiness Research Lab (Happy Lab). He is a Senior Global Futures Scientist from Honors Faculty at Arizona State University, USA.
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