Chasing Happiness

This is the time of the year where I find myself grading research papers for my MBA Ethics in the Marketplace course. Over the past 8 weeks students read books by authors such as Juliet Schor (Overspent American and Plenitude), Yvonne Chouinard (Let my People Go Surfing, The Responsible Company), John Bogle (Enough) or James Speth (Bridge at the Edge of the World). In my humble opinion, these are incredible books! They examine the harmful effects that consumerism and overconsumption and even just greed have on so many facets of life, but particularly how they have harmed the environment.

It’s encouraging that;

1. So many students who choose to write on this topic have resolved to make environmentally-conscious changes in their consumption behaviors

2. The students who are newer to their careers are actively looking to work for socially responsible companies

3. Over the past ten years, I have noticed a marked decline in students who are anti-environmentalists

We may be reaching a tipping point and that the next 70 years will look a lot different than the previous 70 years (since the 1950s when overconsumption really started to get out of hand). Further, I hope that as more and more people try even small changes (for example, choosing to carry a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water) to their habits that these changes feel good, which in turn, motivates people to make more changes, creating a virtuous cycle. Personally, this is what I have experienced and over time, I have made some big changes including putting solar panels on my roof and buying an EV.

Consumer behavior can be quite complex. Generally speaking, people are motivated by a mixture of self-interest and a concern for others (and society). And one thing that fuels my optimism, is that a lot of pro-environmental behaviors are also good for the pocketbook. Perhaps, the best way of all to protect the environment is to just show restraint and not buy everything that we think we need. This has the added benefit that we can save our money and be more financially secure. And, if you are like my students (learning more about the business environment and what cool cutting edge companies are out there), you may even find it a lot more fun and interesting to invest in those companies rather than (insert unnecessary luxury purchase here) ;-) And if you find companies that are new and cutting edge and socially responsible, then even better still! One day soon, I plan to create a post on socially responsible investing.

A final theme that emerged was that students were able to recognize that it can be really easy to go down a path of chasing happiness with material things. And to a certain extent, new things do make us happy. For example, we may get a nice surge of endorphins from buying something that we have been wanting for a while. But, it doesn’t take long for that feeling to wear off and we find ourselves desiring the next latest gadget or home renovation. Except now, we have no money to buy that next thing because we are still paying off the previous thing. This is how that initial surge of happiness could turn into disappointment or dissatisfaction.

One student remarked that he was making a conscious effort to appreciate the things that he already had. We all know that this makes sense, but to recognize it is indeed wise. Lasting happiness comes less from improving our external conditions and more from improving our internal mindset. So, next time you go to buy that new designer purse, VR headgear or whatever new product is being advertised or that your friends are all getting, take a moment to consider; was the production of this product harmful to the environment, is this going to deplete my savings, (and a few months later when I look back on this purchase) will my life really be better off for having purchased this? Being just a little bit more mindful of the things we buy can really make a difference. And once we are mindful about this part of our lives, then perhaps that mindfulness will extend to other parts of your life too.

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