Sustainable development helps us to flourishBy Angela Culpin
Humanity stands at a crossroads. Depending on the choices we make now, future generations will either look back at our time with anger or with gratitude.
New Economics Foundation, 2009
Large increases in the wealth and social circumstances of people in OECD countries over the last 50 years have not been matched by improvements in our psychological wellbeing.
Life is now more stressful than ever before due to its increased pace and complexity, and the breakdown of stable communities. Added to this is a general fear for our future as a result of global threats to our planet.
The Mental Health Foundation's report The relationship between sustainable environmental practices and positive mental health shows that by addressing these threats, we can not only help our planet, but also improve the mental health of our societies.
People who have positive mental health, or are ‘flourishing', experience positive emotions, engagement, meaning, accomplishment and positive relationships. Flourishing is fundamental to personal wellbeing and social functioning.
Sustainable development can be defined as development that ensures a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come.
The natural environment is connected to our psychological wellbeing in many ways. It not only provides people with material needs such as food and water, but also fulfils psychological, spiritual and emotional needs. Therefore, to help our populations flourish, we need to ensure access to natural environments and protect these areas.
Two key models emphasise the importance of protecting our natural environment as part of mental health promotion:
- Te Pae Mahutonga is an indigenous model that considers both internal and external determinants of mental health, including Waiora (environmental protection), which connects human wellbeing with the natural world.
- The Ottawa Charter of Health Promotion identifies the inextricable links between people and their environment, and recognises that built and natural environments need to be protected, and natural resources need to be conserved to successfully promote and manage health.
As well as sustainable development leading to a flourishing population, people with positive mental health are more likely to demonstrate environmentally responsible behaviour, such as reducing energy use, purchasing local produce, and using public transport or fuel-efficient vehicles.
The Mental Health Foundation recognises the important links between positive mental health and sustainable development, and intends to work with organisations committed to sustainability to achieve the following common goals:
Integrating social, cultural, economic and environmental goals
Planning for both mental health promotion and sustainability needs to take a systems approach, respect human rights, celebrate diversity and seek shared solutions to shared problems.
Regenerating natural and social capital
Communities need access to a range of natural and social resources in order to flourish.
Affirming the value of local communities
Working together in local communities on initiatives such as community gardens and time banking not only reduces environmental impacts, but also provides mental wellbeing.
Valuing nature intrinsically
Exposure to open and green space can help to strengthen our connections with nature, promoting relaxation and reducing stress.
Promoting non-material sources of happiness
Increased material consumption in developed countries is not only the main driver for many of our environmental issues, but is also making us less mentally healthy.
In this way, we will be able to move towards a world where current and future generations are able to flourish, and where the needs of our planet are valued and respected.