How could Positive Psychology help us adopt Sustainable Lifestyles?

Today, I would like to point you to the work of the German environmental and organisational psychologist Prof. Marcel Hunecke who tries to link the insights of positive psychology (which focuses on happiness and well-being) to the guiding theme of our time: Sustainability.

But let’s begin at the beginning — Hunecke’s starting point:

During the years of plenty after WW II, it became common sense that economic growth and material wealth would also lead to more happiness and well-being. In the meantime, even economists begin to accept that, on a finite planet, economic growth cannot go on forever and that — as soon as we have reached a certain standard of living — MORE material wealth doesn’t entail MORE well-being and happiness.

To the contrary: Many people in modern consumer societies feel caught in the treadmill, stressed-out, isolated, exhausted, futile, up-rooted, burned-out… and as a consequence they ask themselves: ‘I already own much more than I really need, why should I still put up with all these pressures?’ (see also my own post about work-life-balance)

Consumption, the leitmotif of Western societies, seems to be more and more unable to propel our striving for happiness. We are now in need for a new, more sustainable leitmotif.

The key question is: How can we achieve happiness and well-being beyond material consumption and economic growth?

How can people be enabled to draw individual well-being and satisfaction from immaterial sources instead of consuming more and more material goods and hence wasting energy and natural resources?

Based on the findings of positive psychology and humanism Hunecke establishes three strategies which help people to achieve a happy and fulfilling life:

  1. The Pleasant Life (hedonistic – experiencing and savouring positive feelings)
  2. The Good Life (engaging in tasks which match one’s strengths and abilities)
  3. The Meaningful Life (positive sense of meaning and purpose in life)

(For more information on the three strategies please refer to the respective wiki_en Article)

It depends very much on the individual’s personality and biography if and to what extent he or she is able to make use of all three sources of well-being. Hunecke assumes that it is more likely that the individual would lead a happy and sustainable lifestyle, if he or she was able to embark on a combination of all three strategies.

As a next step, Hunecke suggests to enable people to balance and pursue all three strategies — and hence promote more sustainable lifestyles — by strengthening the following 6 mental resources:


From the cover of the book: Marcel Hunecke – Psychologische Nachhaltigkeit: Psychische Ressourcen für Postwachstumsgesellschaften.


The foundational resources (ability to enjoy, self-acceptance, self-efficacy) enable individuals to pursue and realise their needs and goals.

from the book cover
from the book cover

1. Ability to enjoy (linked to The Pleasant Life):

  • Raising awareness for positive sensual experiences, e.g. by enjoying the simple pleasures of life
  • Intensifying positive experiences
  • Enabling individuals to link positive experiences with feelings of subjective well-being


Individuals are enabled to draw happiness and well-being from the intensity and sensual quality of experiences (i.e. immaterial sources) instead of seeking satisfaction in the consumption of material goods.


from the book cover
from the book cover

2. Self-Acceptance (linked to The Good Life):

  • Supporting the perception of one’s personality with all strengths and weaknesses
  • Helping to accept one’s own positive and negative personality traits
  • Triggering personal growth and development by promoting the transformation of personal weaknesses into strengths
  • Reflecting on and invalidating obsolete values and believes (e.g. “You should…” “You must not…”)


In Western societies compensatory (self-stabilising –> we consume in order to reward ourselves or to cheer ourselves up) and conspicuous (status-/ prestige-oriented –> we consume in order to show off and differentiate ourselves from others) forms of consumption predominate. Only people with strong personalities (=self-acceptance) are able to resist social comparisons and social expectations and are thus more immune against the vicious circle of consumption.


from the book cover
from the book cover

3. Self-efficacy (linked to The Good Life):

  • Gaining a realistic perception of one’s own skills and achievements
  • Strengthening trust in one’s own abilities to cope with challenges
  • Motivating them to carry on by giving them (positive) direct feedback on subgoals
  • Developing an optimistic attitude towards the future: “I will succeed”


Strengthening self-efficacy can help people to bridge the “knowledge-action-gap”. Although people are aware of their (un)sustainable behaviours, they need support when it comes to translating their knowledge into practical actions, e.g.

  1. Defining feasible targets (i.e. in line with the individual’s skills and needs)
  2. Equipping them with the necessary practical knowledge
  3. Uncovering new opportunities for action
  4. Developing an implementation plan


The target-forming resources (mindfullness, construction of meaning, solidarity) enable individuals to reflect and re-evaluate their goals and values.

from the book cover
pic of Marcel Hunecke – from the book cover

4. Mindfullness (linked to The Meaningful Life):

Raising awareness of the “here and now” in 3 levels:

  • Step 1: learning to perceive one’s own feelings and needs (self-awareness)
  • Step 2: enabling the perception and anticipation of the feeling and needs of others (compassion, empathy)
  • Step 3: find orientation in supra-individual values and goals (social awareness)


By facilitating mindfullness positive psychology aims to help people bail out the rat race, e.g. executing one task after another, re-acting on countless requests,… and open up to things beyond self-interest, material wealth and social status.

“Mindfullness sets limits to our striving for more and more material properties and opens the mind for other, not self-referred values. Furthermore, mindfullness increases sensitiveness with regards to essential questions and thus lays the ground for one of the other target-forming resources – construction of meaning.” Marcel Hunecke (my translation)

from the book cover
from the book cover

5. Construction of Meaning (linked to The Meaningful Life):

  • Supporting people in their quest for meaning and purpose in life
  • Developing consideration strategies which allow them to reveal and produce sense and meaning (–> regaining cognitive control)
  • helping people to understand that “construction of meaning” is a lifelong learning process (e.g. values and goals have to be reconsidered from time to time, especially in life-changing situations)


More and more people in Western societies feel that what they do is senseless and meaningless. They just do what they always do (habits) or what is expected from them. By strengthening the resource of “construction of meaning”, people are enabled to gain clarity about and — if necessary — re-think their values and believes, which also helps them to act according to them. The sense of meaningfulness of one’s actions adds to one’s happiness and well-being, whereas moral conflicts and cognitive dissonance lead to uneasiness and discomfort.


from the book cover
from the book cover

6. Solidarity (linked to The Meaningful Life):

  • Fostering the acceptance of social responsibility: e.g. for the well-being of family members as well as for people in the third world
  • Experiencing feelings of social belonging, assurance and trust e.g. by interacting with like-minded people
  • Improving self-efficacy with regards to social behaviours (see below: empowerment)


“Solidarity” consists of two aspects which are both very important when it comes to the fostering of sustainable lifestyles: 1) Breathing life into altruistic motivations and abstract ideas like “social justice” and 2) enabling people (=empowerment) to participate in opinion- and decision-making processes, to organize collective actions, to shape political structures etc.


Oh goodness, what is the big idea?


“From a psychological standpoint it is extremely difficult to take somebody’s property away or to dictate people what they should do or must not do. Prohibitions and instructions will always encounter resistance. (…) At the end of the day, people have to adopt more sustainable lifestyles on a voluntary basis – because they feel that it is beneficial for them. Only thus enduring cultural change can be initiated.” Marcel Hunecke (my translation, my highlighting)

Alternative ways of living have to be communicated and understood in a positive and aspiring way in order to trigger cultural and behavioural change. We all know that moral suasions and monetary incentives are simply not enough when it comes to fostering sustainable lifestyles. We cannot push people in the “right” direction, they have to figure it out and decide themselves. As this is not at all easy, we might want to help them to live up to their potential by strengthening the 6 mental resources.

The sustainable development of modern societies requires a large number of individuals who have discovered and internalised sustainability as their new leitmotif and encourage cultural change by acting as pioneers and role-models. However, they will only have an impact if the political, economic and societal environment don’t put obstacles in the way of cultural and behavioural change.

“If people and societies wanted to achieve happiness and contentment beyond material consumption and economic growth, they would need positive conditions on an individual, economic and political level.” Marcel Hunecke (my translation)

Well, this was — in a pretty large nutshell — the theoretical foundation of Hunecke’s approach. In one of my next articles I will try to bring across how these theoretical findings can be applied to coaching processes (e.g. on an individual level, but also in companies, NGOs, schools, universities and in civil society).


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