One can never truly know what impact their actions may have on other people or on the future.
I realized this recently when out hiking with a friend. I happened to be in a sad mood that morning, feeling demoralized about the climate crisis and ineffectual in addressing it.
“But you’ve already helped me,” said my friend, who proceeded to remind me of a lunchtime talk I gave fifteen years ago to colleagues at the medical center where we worked. At the time, I was a volunteer member of an environmental non-profit that sponsored different monthly actions. The slideshow talk I gave was part of an educational action on the harms of plastics – single-use plastic bags, plastic water bottles, etc.
“Ever since then I completely changed the way I live,” she said. “I make sure to always use tins instead of disposable take out containers. I don’t buy as many foods packaged in plastic.” She went on to describe a number of other lifestyle changes she’s made on behalf of the earth, all apparently initiated as a result of attending that lunchtime presentation. I almost cried.
Just when you’re ready to throw in the towel, assuming your efforts to be but a tiny inept drop in a large plastic-filled ocean, there comes along some evidence to the contrary. What we do does matter, even if it’s making a difference for just one person. I think of all the plastic kept out of the landfill as a result of my friend’s conscious behavior over these years.
And now she was re-inspiring me, as I had first inspired her. I decided to clean up my plastic use, which, I’m embarrassed to say, had snuck back under the radar during the past decade, while at the altar of the consumerist deities of Comfort and Convenience.
So here’s what I did as a small start: rather than continue to purchase and throw away (albeit, recycle) large plastic containers of dish soap and shampoo, I brought the empty containers to the local grocery store and refilled them from the bulk section. The quality and price of the product was comparable to buying the items in new containers.
As the trip to the store would have happened anyway as part of regular grocery shopping, the amount of time taken for this action was only about an extra 3 minutes to refill the containers (plus the 30 seconds it took to write myself a note at home to remember to bring the empty containers in the car). 3.5 minutes total.
I realize that not all stores offer this in-house refill option. You can also order bulk quantities on-line, or simply switch from plastic-packaged products to ones that are manufactured differently (for example, see https://www.grove.co/s/grove for options). It’s worth it.
The title above comes from a line in the recent movie Frozen 2. I’m not embarrassed to say that I saw it, twice. Cartoons often provide important social commentary (and they’re pretty to look at).
Here’s the relevant plot point:
The main character Anna is in a dark hole, literally and metaphorically. She’s faced with despair as she watches her world’s magic die and confronts the likely ruin of her kingdom and those she loves. The impending disaster comes as a result of her ancestor’s misdeeds – toward people of the forest and toward the earth itself. The elements of the planet are now wreaking havoc and require amends to be made.
Indeed. How to proceed forward when hope no longer serves as an operating system? What motivates us when it might be too late for our actions to even be corrective?
Anna decides to "just do the next right thing,” and you can watch how the movie develops. In real life, however, doing the next right thing does not necessarily lead to happily-ever-after. There are no formulas or guarantees in terms of outcome.
So, why do the next right thing if we don’t know it’ll make a difference?
Well, why not? What else am I going to do with my time – continue on in denial, complicate matters, behave in a way that erodes my integrity? Even if doing the next right thing has no outward effect at all, it may have an inward one. And, at least, it’s not making the situation worse.
Which leads me to another action taken in preparation for this Blog entry. Years ago, my family switched from the local utility, PG&E, to a supplier of more sustainable sources of electricity (solar, wind, etc.). But, after a while, something happened and we ended up being switched back. We intended to correct that and stay with the sustainable supplier, but, alas, for the usual reasons (procrastination, being busy, yadda yadda yadda), we never did follow-up.
Here’s what it took to complete this: 1) going on-line to see the options for switching (15min), 2) finding PG&E paperwork with our account info on it (5 min), 3) calling PG&E and making the request (7 min), 4) being directed to another department and calling them to finalize the switch (10 min).
Thirty seven minutes later, the sun revealed itself from behind the coal-fueled cloud that had been hanging over our heads - its yellow face eager as always to warm us and power our home.
In September of last year, I participated in the local Climate Strike. We marched to different financial institutions and demonstrated on their front steps against their investments in the fossil fuel industry. We held signs, we sang songs, we were doing something for the planet.
My intention at the time was to switch to a socially and environmentally responsible credit union the moment the march ended. (I happened to be a life-long member of one of the banks we were protesting in front of!)
Well, that was months ago. The reason no follow-through took place? Mmm..…the usual suspects: procrastination, limited bandwidth, rationalization (e.g., that my very modest bank accounts didn’t really amount to much so why bother with the hassle of transferring them, etc.).
At the rally, I fully intended to follow my conscience and do the right thing. And yet, the power of inertia watered me down to half-measures. Protesting is well and good, but better to be living the ethical practices you’re demonstrating for!
So, thanks to the public accountability of this blog, I have finally made the switch. Here’s what it took: 1) online researching of different local credit unions (1 hour), 2) booking and attending an appointment with the credit union representative to become a member and open new accounts (1.5 hours), 3) doing the online/phone legwork to transfer all my automatic payments to the new accounts (2 hours), and 4) visiting my old bank to close out my account (yet to be done, but probably < .5 hour).
In the process, I realized that my default excuse of “I don’t have time” is just not true. It took five hours out of my life for the worthy cause of helping the Earth and not being a hypocrite, at least on this one measure. I also got to develop a relationship with a real person at the credit union (in contrast to a relationship with the phone tree at my old bank). A promising start to the New Year!
On this New Year's day, I’d like to recommit this blog to No-self Help’s largest vision: the greater good.
Remembrance of our no-self nature organically results in a wider perspective. At the absolute level, the universal consciousness that animates us reminds us that ultimately there is no difference between living things. Serving others is, in essence, serving ourselves.
At the relative level, in which we identify with our individual mind-bodies on a day to day basis, no-self help reminds us that we are interconnected. No one is fundamentally separate, standing alone from the rest of life. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors influence each other and the environment around us.
I hope to pivot this blog in 2020 toward this last point, our influence upon the environment. The turn in year and decade invites us to take stock of our priorities. For me, helping inspire constructive, collective change with regard to our largest self – the planet – rises to the top of the list.
Not only is this a priority in terms of helping mitigate, if possible, the avalanching effects of climate change, but it also carries personal urgency. The dam of despair and helplessness threatens to break with each exposure to the news. Taking action helps fortify me and prevents against a deluge of paralysis and resignation.
For me, approaching the New Year with a clean slate, psychologically speaking, requires conducting an inventory of behaviors and attitudes and lifestyle choices and assessing how aligned they are with my larger values. The aim is to walk the talk. To root out denial, hypocrisy. To cease being complicit (albeit, unintentionally) with the twentieth century consumer identity my generation was born into that has contributed to the current environmental crisis.
The research has spoken, be it along the lines of positive psychology or climate science. We know what helps vs what hinders. Responsibility is simply “the ability to respond.” My New Year’s intention is for this blog to help keep me (and perhaps others – if they are interested and willing) accountable to that goal.
Identity is usually considered to be a personal thing: who am I– as a person? - as an individual?
Who am I? often gets answered in contrast with who are you? We tend to identify ourselves as essentially separate and different from others.
Not everyone, however, comes to self-knowledge with this assumption – that distinct and autonomous personhood is the defining feature of identity. Many believe, instead, that they and everything else around them is part of one fundamental entity or process. They feel an essential connection with all people, animals and nature, manifestations of the same underlying substance.
A belief in oneness has psychological implications, as a recent study out of Duke University demonstrates (Diebels & Leary, 2019). Those participants who believed in oneness were found to value benevolence and universalism more than those who did not believe in oneness. Perhaps this is not surprising – that identifying as allis correlated with an increased concern for the welfare of all, not just for the people one has immediate contact with.
Oneness beliefs were found to be associated with more spiritual themes as opposed to theistic religious views, such as an overall connection with nature and humanity. Believers in oneness tended to have more mystical experiences (such as losing the sense of having a separate self) than non-believers. Other research has found that an extended sense of connection with all of humankind and the natural world promotes concern about the environment, something the planet could use right now.
Interestingly, the study also found that belief in oneness does not diminish one’s self-interest. Self-absorption or selfish attitudes are just as likely among those believing in oneness as among those who do not. Apparently, a person can still function quite well as an individual and advocate for their wants and needs even when believing their true nature to be one with all creation!
And so, perhaps, we can have our cake and eat it too with enough to share with everyone else. That is, we can live both identities as non-competitive, simultaneous truths: being both one and Oneness.
Trying to achieve tranquility, defined as pleasant inactivity in the mind and body, is like trying to effort one’s way into relaxation. It doesn’t work.
In a recent study of college students, researchers found that tranquility was negatively associated with physical and social activities and also negatively associated with activities done for the sake of entertainment or mastery/virtuosity (Berenbaum, Huang and Flores 2019). Tranquility was, instead, positively associated with spiritual activities. These findings differ for the emotion of contentment – which was positively associated with mastery and intellectual activities.
In general, higher tranquility was found among those who tended to focus on the processof activities rather than on the outcome. Those who demonstrate higher levels of acceptance also tend to experience more tranquility.
Thus, focusing and accepting one’s present status can help make one “tranquility-prone.” The researchers explain that “it is not so much current inactivitythat contributes to tranquility as it is a freedomfrom need/desire to try to change/control the future” (p. 258).
Check out the nation’s first commercial scale plastics-to-fuel plant in development in Ashley, Indiana. It’s designed by Brightmark Energy, an energy and waste development company in San Francisco, and is scheduled to open in 2020. It will convert 100,000 tons of waste plastic a year into reusable commercial products.
Hundreds of new zero-emission vehicles are soon to be fueled by the world’s largest hydrogen refueling station in Shanghai.
“Why bother?” This is how many people have recently been feeling about involvement in civic activities, doubting that any political or prosocial contribution on their part will make a difference.
Such understandable demoralization can darken one’s outlook and paralyze one’s sense of agency. But the opposite effect has been found to be true for civic engagement.
A recent study investigated the actual impact of four types of civic participation (pro-environmental behavior, informal helping behaviors, volunteering and charitable giving) on college students’ daily well-being as reported over the course of a week (Wray-Lake et al 2019).
The results showed that participants experienced greater well-being on days that they reported engaging in more helping and pro-environmental behaviors (charitable giving and volunteering did not have the same effect though higher overall composite civic engagement was associated with daily well-being).
Why do we feel better when we “bother” to engage as citizens?
The researchers found that the helping and environmental behaviors were associated with “psychological needs satisfaction.” According to self-determination theory, we all have basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied over time (as they were for the study participants who did informal helping behaviors and pro-environmental behaviors), the better we feel and the more likely we are to flourish.
Conclusions? Well-being is not necessarily contingent upon us having a “successful” outcome in the long-run at the systems level. The behaviors and activities that we enact volitionally and that satisfy our core drives towards connection with others and competence tend to be the ones that increase our morale and benefit our mental health.
The tech company BioCarbon Engineering in collaboration with the conservation nonprofit Worldview International Foundation has designed a drone potentially capable of planting up to 400,000 trees/day. Check out their work with mangrove saplings in Myanmar:
When having a disagreement with one’s partner, what can help bring down one’s blood pressure?
Researchers found that those couples who demonstrated “humble complementarity” reported greater relationship satisfaction after a stressful disagreement and lower blood pressure (Tongeren et al 2019). These are relationships characterized by both partners exhibiting humble behavior (as opposed to one or both exhibiting arrogance).
Even when going through periods of strain (for example, when couples transition into parenthood for the first time), humility has been found to ease adjustment and lower levels of depression. This is especially the case when both partners act in humble ways; humility reduces defensiveness and strengthens trust and overall relationship commitment.
If only one partner acts in a humble manner, the benefits of humility to the relationship as a whole are compromised, likely due to the increased risk of one partner feeling exploited by the other.
So being humble is not only a virtue but it’s also a source of relationship resilience as long as both parties are on board.
Check out the Roots of Empathy Program, that teaches school age children across the globe empathy, developing their social-emotional competence, and decreasing rates of aggression.
When we feel awe, we get in touch with something larger than ourselves. For a moment we transcend the challenging circumstances of our lives and the confines of our self-concept. We feel expanded, savoring of the present moment and, perhaps, in touch with a sense of spirituality.
Researchers recently investigated whether awe additionally helps us when we’re feeling at a loss, deprived of something that we possess (Koh, Tong, Yuen 2019). Given that we can perceive possessions as an extension of ourselves, their loss can be painful and even predict impaired mental health. Would awe buffer that?
Three experiments were conducted examining the effect of awe on real and imagined loss in laboratory and natural settings. The results: participants reported feeling less negatively about the loss of a possession when experiencing awe (as induced, for example, by viewing picturesque scenes of people exploring nature).
Each increase in the amount of awe experienced corresponded with less “troubledness” participants felt in relationship to their loss. The buffering effect of awe was significant and separate from the effect of other positive emotions (e.g., happiness, gratitude, contentment or serenity) in coping with loss of personal artefacts.
The findings suggest that the unique positive influence of awe in reducing negative feelings associated with loss may be due to the diminished attention we give to the self when we feel awe.
The self-identification projected onto our possessions may fade in the wake of being awed by something larger or more important than ourselves. Thus, we become less distressed should a possession be lost. This can be helpful in skillfully coping with future loss – that is, after initially registering and grieving the loss, we can choose to then focus on what inspires us, alleviating negative emotional aftermath.
Want to learn about something awe-inspiring?
Check out recent photographs of the legendary black leopard of Africa, last documented 100 years ago.
Check out Nature Connection, an organization founded in 1983 that brings nature to people who are unable to go outdoors. The Massachusetts organization brings nature programs directly to at risk youth and elders and those with disabilities that prevent them from accessing it outside.
Many different tools and measures exist for identifying what’s wrong with people, especially in the field of psychology. Fortunately, in recent years, people’s strengths have also begun to receive the spotlight, with instruments being developed to assess character virtues and assets.
A recent study of 2274 Israeli children investigated their character strengths (Shoshani 2019). The analyses found that strengths tend to cluster into four core factors:
1. Intellectual Strengths: e.g., love of learning, curiosity, appreciation of beauty, creativity
2. Interpersonal Strengths: e.g., teamwork, perspective, social intelligence, kindness
3.Temperance Strengths: e.g., open-mindedness, prudence, persistence, self-regulation, forgiveness
4. Transcendence Strengths: e.g., zest, hope, gratitude, spirituality
Results showed a negative relationship between the temperance strengths and socio-emotional difficulties, as well as between interpersonal strengths and socio-emotional difficulties. In other words, the more these particular kinds of strengths are developed in children, the more buffered they may be from social and emotional difficulties.
Positive relationships were found between children’s emotional well-being and the presence of the transcendence, intellectual and interpersonal strengths. The particular characteristics most associated with well-being were: hope, love, zest, and love of learning!Virtues such as modesty and authenticity had no correlation at all with emotional well-being for young children, suggesting that some strengths have stronger associations with mental health than other traits.
Perhaps, in addition to the endless corrections offered to children in fine-tuning their behavior, we would do well to reinforce their natural tendencies towards hope, love, zest and learning.
Did you know…
In New Delhi, India, 1,000 schools have added a class on happiness, starting students’ day with inspirational stories, self-care and meditation. Delhi’s Education Minister, Manish Sisodia, was inspired by Bhutan’s commitment to its citizen’s well-being through its Gross National Happiness Index, and the inclusion of a happiness-infused curriculum, now modeled after by twelve countries.
Check it out: