Informing the sustainable pursuit of happiness

Scott Cloutier, Michael Angilletta, Jean Denis Mathias, Nuri C. Onat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Although most people want to be happy, the pursuit of happiness involves an overwhelming number of choices and great uncertainty about the consequences. Many of these choices have significant implications for sustainability, which are rarely considered. Here, we present an optimality model that maximizes subjective happiness, which can eventually account for sustainability outcomes. Our model identifies the optimal use of time or energy to maximize happiness. Such models tell people how to invest in domains of happiness (e.g., work vs. leisure) and how to choose activities within domains (e.g., playing a computer game vs. playing a board game). We illustrate this optimization approach with data from an online survey, in which people (n = 87) either recalled or imagined their happiness during common activities. People reported decelerating happiness over time, but the rate of deceleration differed among activities. On average, people imagined spending more time on each activity than would be needed to maximize happiness, suggesting that an optimality model has value for guiding decisions. We then discuss how such models can address sustainability challenges associated with overinvesting (e.g., excessive CO2 emissions). To optimize happiness and explore its implications for sustainability over long periods, models can incorporate psychological processes that alter the potential for happiness and demographic processes that make lifespan uncertain. In cases where less objective approaches have failed, a quantitative theory may improve opportunities for happiness, while meeting sustainability outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number9491
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 2 2020


  • Biological models
  • Happiness
  • Optimization
  • Sustainability
  • Wellbeing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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