Sustainable wellbeing benefits both the individual and society, says Professor Arto O. Salonen
How is sustainability linked to our wellbeing? How can we live and consume more sustainably than before? How does the shift to a more sustainable lifestyle affect us?
These are some of the questions that Arto O. Salonen, Professor at the University of Eastern Finland, is seeking to answer. In his research, Salonen is examining the challenges that sustainable development poses to global wellbeing, and is looking for ways to solve the big questions facing humanity and our planet. Sustainability is at the core of Salonen’s work. Just a decade ago, sustainability was an emerging phenomenon that was often met with suspicion.
“Back then, people still associated with something that relates to only forest enthusiasts. Today, finding solutions to sustainability issues has become mainstream,” Salonen says.
As a researcher, Salonen approaches sustainability from social, economic and ecological perspectives. He studies ways for humans to thrive centuries from now. According to Salonen, this requires people to make smart and sustainable choices. Sustainability is ultimately about looking after the environment and climate to secure the prerequisites for life.
To enable the shift to a more sustainable lifestyle, we must also care for humanity in addition to the environment.
“Our own wellbeing is linked to other people. When we acknowledge one another’s strengths, we also experience greater self-appreciation. We feel adequate as we are. There’s goodness and beauty in every person, and revealing it makes us strong. We need this strength when carrying out the changes needed for a sustainable future,” Salonen explains.
From material goods towards quality of life
What does wellbeing really mean? According to Salonen, it first encompasses the material basis for life: a roof over your head, water, food and the ability to take care of your health and develop yourself.
“Not long ago, infections were still fatal in Finland, people were starving, and attending school was far from something to be taken for granted.
For example, modern means of hygiene, which have a key impact on our health, didn’t gain popularity until the 1960s, when we began to see ads for toilet paper on TV. Following the post-war increase in wellbeing, our basic needs can now be satisfied.
Second, in wealthy societies, questions concerning the quality of life are gaining importance alongside material aspects.
“Quality of life refers to the things that make life worth living. Once your basic needs have been satisfied, the focus turns to immaterial things. Contrary to material wellbeing, immaterial wellbeing is based on a host of endless opportunities. For example, filling the world with more knowledge and love doesn’t harm anyone. Mutual trust, satisfaction and the joy of life are examples of the abundant elements of a good life that are accessible to all.”
Meaningful choices improve wellbeing
Sustainability has now become a mainstream, and recent development has been very rapid, according to Salonen.
“It’s interesting to see that investors are also gradually moving their attention and assets away from business that ignores the climate, natural resources and biodiversity loss. This signals a change in the global trend.”
Consumer research also indicates that people want to know the consequences of their consumption choices.
“People place ever greater emphasis on their own values when choosing products and services,” Salonen points out.
He believes conscious consumerism strengthens your self-esteem, because you become part of the solutions instead of the problems through your deliberate choices. It’s a question of finding meaning, which lies at the core of wellbeing for a Finn living in a plentiful world, Salonen explains. Daily choices like the kind of toilet paper you buy make a difference.
“There’s no room for wastefulness on our globe, which is reaching its limits. It’s important for me to know whether the toilet paper I buy is made of, for example, pulpwood, which is a by-product of log wood. It means I can choose to support a more sustainable future through my purchase. My choice also boosts my self-esteem.”
Salonen mentions local origins as another important consideration when making daily purchase choices. People want to support the vitality of their own region and country, as well as employment at home. Many people want to know where their money is going, and where the product comes from. In other words, consumers want to know where the raw material for their toilet paper comes from, the mill that produces the toilet paper, and the professionals who operate the machines.
“This information strengthens our sense of being part of building a good future through our daily choices. Daily items are made possible by a large number of people who do their best to ensure that the product is safe and sustainable,” Salonen explains.
“Transparency and sustainability build trust. If I know how a product has made its way into my hands, I can be proud of my choice. In turn, this has a positive impact on my wellbeing.”
Consumers become decision makers
In addition to sustainability and responsibility, consumption is also driven by other, sometimes conflicting, motives. Some people are attracted to aesthetic or practical objects, while others seek status or pleasure, and yet others emphasise price. Occasionally, the goal of a more sustainable life appears to mean giving up all material wellbeing. In Salonen’s opinion, it makes sense to accept the competing needs for consumption.
“No one wants to hear the mantra of “give up, make do with less” all the time. You have to change the nature of the message. What if, instead of scarcity, we could strive towards something more noble, and instead of quantity, focus on quality?”
Quality of life is based largely on immaterial aspects that are not in short supply. As our own life begins to feel more meaningful and “worth living”, our hopes for a better future grow stronger and we can harness our capacity and creativity to solve the sustainability challenge. Individual benefit and the common good converge.
“Each of us has both selfish and unselfish characteristics: as consumers, we want to make sustainable choices, while satisfying our individual needs. If we can achieve both in our consumption choices, society will see an accelerated shift to sustainability.”
It may be tempting occasionally to say that your own choices are unimportant on a global scale, or that the destiny of a single planet makes no difference to the universe. Salonen warns that a pessimistic attitude like this can be deceptive. For the sake of our wellbeing, we must experience the joy of life and satisfaction.
“A person who resolutely opts for solutions can feel proud when they look in the mirror. They’ve done what a person with their knowledge has to do. If you’re satisfied with yourself, you will also have the energy to work for a more sustainable future.”