Which lifestyles are just not sustainable

Why do we (not) behave sustainably?

Frustration shopping, bargain hunts, shopping trips - consumption can make us happy. With a purchase we can fulfill our wishes and that creates feelings of happiness. However, addiction to shopping is also not a desirable state. We also know that we cannot all get the same amount of cake, i.e. consume it. Above all, however, everyday life in our affluent society contradicts the current model of living more sustainably and using resources responsibly. But can we also gain life satisfaction from immaterial sources? The environmental psychologist Prof. Dr. Marcel Hunecke says: Yes. On behalf of Denkwerk Zukunft, he was looking for psychological resources for a life satisfaction that is completely independent of the material side of life. *

The six psychological resources for subjective well-being

Based on findings from positive psychology, Hunecke developed his pleasure-goal-meaning theory. According to this theory, we have three strategies at our disposal in order to lead a satisfied life: experiencing pleasure, achieving goals and meaning. Hunecke identifies six psychological resources that make these strategies possible. They are the ability to enjoy, self-acceptance, self-efficacy, mindfulness, meaning and solidarity.

According to Hunecke, the first three resources are fundamental, that is, essential for a strong personality. Such a personality can therefore enjoy, has self-confidence and is convinced that what he sets out to do can also be successfully implemented. The last three resources are goal-setting and enable an orientation of the person to immaterial sources of satisfaction. A person who wants to live sustainably should develop a mindful attitude. This means that she should be aware of her own needs and feelings, as well as those of other people and living beings. In addition, she should be motivated to fathom the meaning of a wide variety of life situations. And she has to want to take on social responsibility. According to Hunecke, these six resources support each other so that a less pronounced resource can be compensated for by other resources.

Strengthen the three foundational resources

The ability to enjoy

As mentioned, the ability to enjoy is an essential resource for subjective well-being. On the one hand we have sensual and physical pleasures at our disposal, on the other hand aesthetic and intellectual pleasures. All too often, however, we do not perceive these sources of pleasure in our everyday lives. We devour the midday snack, throw the new shirt into the closet after wearing it three times because we already have a new one in mind, walk blindly past spring meadows or colorful autumn leaves on the way to work in the morning. Would we consume less if we could draw more well-being from the sources of pleasure that surround us every day - if we were to perceive all these events as sources of pleasure at all? Hunecke claims: yes, and demands: intensity instead of quantity. The positive emotions that bring us an enjoyable life also reward us retrospectively for our sustainable actions. At The bird’s new nest you will also find a wide variety of ways to stimulate your pleasure center and act sustainably - from quick and easy homemade seasonal recipes to ecological fashion, when it should be shopping.

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The self acceptance

Self-acceptance describes the “fundamental acceptance of oneself with all its positive and negative characteristics”. Those who perceive their personality-specific strengths can also accept their personality-specific weaknesses more easily. This is an essential component of stable self-worth, which in turn makes us more independent of processes of social comparison: If we have stable self-worth, we do not have to consume in order to signal prosperity and belonging to those around us. We can more easily escape the pressure to consume. How can self-acceptance be strengthened? For example, by becoming aware of outdated beliefs that we have acquired in the course of our lives and saying goodbye to them. Most of these beliefs have the form “you have to” or “you mustn't” - a typical example of this is: “You mustn't make mistakes”.

The self-efficacy

Most colloquially known as “self-confidence”, self-efficacy describes the conviction that you can successfully master difficult situations in life: “I will do it”. Successful experiences strengthen self-confidence. We can gain this experience of success by dividing the overarching goal into smaller stages with a high probability of success. Individual successes motivate us to achieve the overriding goal. Our self-confidence grows. However, this has little to do with a sustainable lifestyle per se - we can aim to achieve mainly material prosperity with confidence. So how can self-confidence be strengthened and used in relation to sustainability? According to Hunecke, by conveying action-related knowledge on this topic to people and giving them options for action - an approach that The bird’s new nest also takes by bringing together a wide range of knowledge, but also offering opportunities to get involved socially and ecologically.

Strengthen the three target resources


Mindfulness means "intentionally and non-judgmentally directing your attention entirely to the current moment". It can be trained through meditation and body awareness exercises. The aim is to limit our everyday consciousness. It is characterized by automated thought processes such as our everyday expectations, plans, tasks, interpretations. So it is directed to processes that happen (will) or have happened outside. In a mindful state, we direct our attention to the now: on the one hand, inward, when we turn to our own (body) sensations. On the other hand, to the present moment, when we perceive what is happening around us without evaluating what we have perceived or thinking about it. Mindfulness reduces stress and increases subjective well-being - especially when our automated thought processes are negative. In addition, it leads to an increased awareness of questions of meaning and increases compassion. It shows people which needs and values ​​are really important to them. The striving for material values ​​usually turns in favor of less self-related values.

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The meaning

Finding meaning in the everyday experiences we have in life means recognizing meaning in those experiences and evaluating them. This meaning or evaluation is usually associated with a positive feeling. To do this, it is necessary to start looking for meaning in the first place, to reflect on yourself and the experiences you have made and to be aware of your own values ​​and goals in life. This gives us a feeling of control over our own biography and increases our well-being. In such reflection processes, we usually find the meaning of our life experiences not in the material or our individual interests, but in social relationships and socially important values, such as justice, tolerance or the careful use of natural resources.

The solidarity

If we take a solidarity stance, it means that we want to take responsibility for the well-being of other people. This also includes a portion of self-efficacy - we have to be convinced that our actions in interaction with like-minded people contribute to general well-being. Solidarity is the psychological resource that ensures that we actually focus our actions on people other than ourselves. Solidarity action rewards us with the positive feeling of belonging and activates trust and feelings of security. It is more important, however, that collective action leads to the achievement of common, but also different, and in any case prosocial, interests and goals. Solidarity is the only one of the psychological resources presented here that not only depends on ourselves and our reflection, but has to be practiced in interaction with other people. For example, when writing an article for The bird’s new nest - just like I'm doing here right now.

Social influence

The more people actively participate in a rethink, the sooner a change in values ​​can develop in the direction of a sustainable and resource-saving way of life that people control themselves. However, Hunecke points out that individually correct behavior in the wrong structures is usually too time-consuming for the individual to be sustained over the long term. Such a change in values ​​must also be shaped and made possible on a political and economic level. In his studies on sustainable behavior, the social scientist Robert Cialdini repeatedly confirms the importance of social norms, i.e. the knowledge of how most other people behave in a situation. For example, the information that other people do the same is most likely to tempt us to take energy-saving measures at home or to use towels more sparingly in hotels for the sake of the environment.

So it shows that the personal development of each individual can contribute to the well-being of our society. What experiences have you had with the psychological resources described? Can you confirm the considerations?


* Note: Feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration are part of every life. Bad mood also has its meaning, because it shows us where we pay too little attention to our needs and desires and where we push our limits. One possibility to counter this with more resilience is to be shown here.


This article is based on:
The book also offers a comprehensive insight into the topic:
The following further studies were cited:
Nolan, J.M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative social influence is underdetected. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 913-923.
ReGoldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472-482.

Verena is a qualified psychologist and lives in Hamburg. As a globetrotter, she spent the first year of her life in the USA and has also lived in Oxford, Bristol, Osnabrück, Helsinki, Vienna and Munich. In her free time you can meet her in nature, in bouldering halls, jazz clubs, in the sauna or with a book in the coffee house.