Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being"

Anamaria Aristizabal

Thank you, Christopher Barrington-Leigh, for bringing up the important issue of well-being, especially its relationship with sustainability. I would like to highlight some of the opportunities that are most exciting to me in how we can move forward in our aim to see more sustainable systems and lifestyles, where sustainability is defined in the most life-enhancing way.

The first opportunity I see is the fact that happiness is now a term we can use safely. What I mean is that the subjective assessment of life satisfaction is now a legitimate term to use, which signals we are overcoming our blind objectivism, where only what is visible and objectively measurable is valid. This opens the door for new forms of knowing to be accepted and taken into account in the conversation. This is a big step in the public discourse that values the scientific truth above anything else, leaving many things out.

This opening for the subjective is a good validation for more qualitative approaches. I just attended a Design Thinking workshop, based on a Human-Centered paradigm which starts any design assignment with an empathetic exploration of the person’s real needs, context, and possibilities. This subjective approach is an invitation to avoid cookie-cutter interventions and to invite every community to define what well-being is and to prioritize what is needed.

This subjective exploration of well-being was a pillar in the Ecobarrios program (Eco-Neighborhoods). Ecobarrios became a local government intervention in Bogotá under the Mockus administration (2001–2004). In this program, we trained neighborhood leaders to do a needs assessment of their communities in four dimensions (ecological, economic, social, and spiritual) and come up with their own collective eco-neighborhood plan for which they would get some seed funding from the government entity. I anticipate much more of such activities where people’s definition of well-being is at the center.

Another opportunity I see is finding people fulfilling occupations. This is my mission as a life coach. I am writing a book called Life Re-Vision to uncover passions and create a new map of one’s life. I see so many people in a major reinvention of their lives, redefining what success is and actually feeling into what they really want in life. I see a need for more imagination, poetry, art, culture, and any way that the uniqueness of each individual can be expressed and put in service for others’ well-being.

Aside from finding one’s passions, fulfillment is also related to contributing to others. As we get in touch with our real needs as humans (not the fabricated needs of our advertising culture), we want to serve, and we want to care for others and our environment, as opposed to having the attitude of a consumer—consumption of things, people, resources that ultimately do not bring lasting happiness. There are a disproportionate number of women in this search versus men, who seem more invested in the current paradigm of conventional success, as they have traditionally been the winners. But the cost of keeping this dangerous game alive is becoming more and more evident as relationships and communities are needing the masculine to evolve.

Another exciting opportunity is the possibility for collective action. It is so encouraging to see that once people fulfill their basic needs, they really start caring for the well-being of others and the planet. There was recently a referendum in Colombia by a region where mining was being put to the test. It is not a wealthy region. Their basic needs are just about covered—that’s it. And the people resoundingly said, “No! We want to protect our water resources.” For this to happen, it is key to not take our basic conditions for life and happiness for granted, to understand that if we don’t become stewards of them, we might lose them.

The opportunity for joint agendas with other movements, under the umbrella of well-being, is also exciting. So much work to do! Enough to fill many lifetimes. This can give meaning to countless lives, providing meaningful work to do that we must do together. There are many movements and organizations in this endeavor. Our challenge is to overcome our individualistic tendencies and create the kinds of systems and mindsets that promote collaboration. New types of organizations are needed that foster collaboration and create platforms to do so effectively, in order to achieve more impact.

To finish, the greatest opportunity I see is for people to increasingly engage in spiritual development. As the spiritual guide I am following says, “When you do the work to change the world from a peaceful, fulfilled place, the work will not deplete you.” I see so many changemakers who are burned out, depleted, even cynical. As we focus on well-being and happiness, we can overcome this compulsive bias towards action at the expense of more understanding and connection to what really is needed. Spirituality also opens us up not just to the understanding but to the real felt sense that we are deeply connected and that my well-being is completely tied to yours because I love you. And embracing my suffering is also embracing yours, and the world’s, as I have more and more capacity to do so—not turn the blind eye but be able to feel the sorrow, and at the same time the deep desire that we all liberate from our suffering and create a world that compassionately cares for all beings.

Anamaria Aristizabal
Anamaria Aristizabal is a certified Integral Coach at New Ventures West. She co-founded Aldeafeliz ecovillage near Bogota and is the chair of the Colombian chapter of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL).

Cite as Anamaria Aristizabal, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being," Great Transition Initiative (April 2017),

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