The Human Side of Sustainability

Turning gratitude into a way of being

A student writes what she's thankful for during April's Gratitude Lunch, which was organized by Sustainable Duke.
A student writes what she's thankful for during April's Gratitude Lunch, which was organized by Sustainable Duke. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

On a sunny spring day last semester, students, faculty and staff filled a meeting room in the Student Wellness Center for a lunch organized by Sustainable Duke. The zero-waste event featured compostable plates and pasta salad with locally sourced vegetables.

But the talk over lunch wasn’t about carbon footprints or conservation. Instead, the purpose was to nurture Duke’s human resource.

All that was required for guests at this “Gratitude Lunch” was to invite someone they wanted to thank.

“Research tells us that people who are happier are people who are more grateful,” Student Wellness Center Director Tom Szigethy told the group before the meal. “How do we turn gratitude into a way of being?”

While many Sustainable Duke events leave community members inspired to find a greener way to commute or cut energy use, the lunch aimed to get people to write lists of what they’re thankful for, or to train their mind to focus on opportunities instead of problems.

For most people, living sustainably means meeting your needs without depleting the environment or economy in a way that jeopardizes future generations. But a part of the sustainability equation that’s becoming more prominent is the value of living in a way that maintains physical and mental health.

The intersection of wellness and sustainability is one of the driving forces behind the Healthy Duke campaign, a campus-wide wellness initiative. Szigethy and Sustainable Duke Director Tavey Capps are leading the Environment & Culture portion of the campaign.

“We can’t necessarily claim to be a sustainable institution if the people who live and work here aren’t well,” Capps said. “We can be carbon neutral, but if all the students are stressed out and the staff is burned out, we’re not sustainable.”

Examples of Sustainable Duke’s emphasis on wellness are beginning to show up. Sustainable Duke’s recently updated Green Workplace and Green Classroom certification checklists now feature wellness-related items like holding walking meetings, providing healthy food at events and starting classes with a minute of mindfulness.

Also, the Gratitude Lunch was funded by Sustainable Duke’s Green Grant Program, which offers students, faculty and staff financial help in making their ideas a reality.

Tam Huynh, a research technician with the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, sat with co-worker Kelly Seaton at the lunch. He invited her to show his appreciation for helping to run their lab. He thought the lunch was a good idea, pointing out that wellness, like sustainability, is the kind of institutional value that can spread.

“I think humans are creatures of imitation, so if everyone is doing something positive, others will join in,” Huynh said. “It can be contagious. … The good kind of contagious.”