Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being"

Tadhg O'Mahony

Christopher Barrington-Leigh has done an excellent job at marshalling voluminous evidence to support a happiness approach to development and sustainability. If our current modes of pursuing the “good life,” on aggregate, are frequently detrimental to individual well-being, to societal well-being, and to environmental sustainability, then the simple question is, why does such an approach persist?

That happiness and well-being are actually built on opportunities for various types of personal growth, relational well-being, and meaningfulness is a philosophical argument that spans millennia. Looking across the major world religions, and the history of civilization in general, one can discern that these precepts—a sense of justice, ethics, fairness, and a relational conception of our place in the world—are not new. These characteristics are indeed intrinsic to most of us, and have been hidden by the growing preoccupation with economic growth, opulence, and material abundance. Consumer identity is spreading globally as income and consumption become the aspirations of “success,” which is actually a recent cultural novelty. Policymaking is has been trapped by utility maximization, consumer sovereignty, and the selfish “Homo Economicus.”

The simplistic focus on growth at all costs hides dimensions and nuances from view that a focus on human well-being and sustainability can bring to the fore. A focus on well-being could be most useful in industrialized countries to address the environmental costs of overconsumption and to enhance individual well-being. However, I do think inequality is inescapable, within countries, across countries and across generations. “Sustainable well-being” could also be a focus in developing countries, but it would need to have a particular emphasis on addressing poverty and deprivation so that pursuing well-being does not become a smokescreen for avoiding inequality and grinding poverty. Respect and dignity are important contributors here; however, basic human needs are not being met in many societies, and these aspects of human well-being cannot be traded. Relatedly, as Barrington-Leigh points out, the environment and nature are frequently left out of happiness and well-being conceptions, and this is in part because people are not fully aware of what contributes to their well-being. This phenomenon also extends to other domains of life, raising questions about relying on happiness measurement as the sole step-off point for policy.

Barrington-Leigh’s observation that “many of the opportunities for improving well-being discussed so far do not necessitate an increase in environmental harm or even material production” is a key observation, particularly in the use of the word “necessitate.” It highlights that there is much potential for a “double dividend” in the words of Tim Jackson, of enhanced human well-being and improved environmental outcomes. That there is now a growing engagement with these complex issues is to be greatly welcomed, as it counters the bluntness of the focus on income, growth, and employment. It may open a new approach of synergy in seeking a pathway for humanity to live within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s systems.


Tadhg O'Mahony
Tadhg O'Mahony holds a Marie Sklodowska Curie postdoctoral fellowship at the Finland Futures Research Centre. His research centers on the links between material consumption and well-being, energy scenarios for Europe to 2050, and policies to maximize well-being and minimize emissions.

Cite as Tadhg O'Mahony, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being," Great Transition Initiative (April 2017),

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