Considering how the pandemic has called attention to the harms we’ve caused our planet, it’s fitting that this year’s theme for Earth Day is Restore Our Earth. The theme reminds us to value the home we share with so many other species as well as the opportunities we have to do better by our planet. Andreas Karelas, founder and executive director of RE-volv, is all about the opportunities to act on climate change solutions. One of the ways we can restore our Earth is to take a page or two from this passage of his book, Climate Courage, and adopt the three community-centered values he suggests. Our psychology and mindset toward climate change is just as important to be aware of.
Based on the latest findings of positive psychology research, I suggest that, in order to address climate change, we need to cultivate different values—values that place a greater emphasis on community and less on consumption—and that living according to these values will have the benefits of reducing our impact on the planet and increasing our personal well-being. To do this I’ll describe what I believe to be an effective three-step approach: (1) cultivate gratitude, (2) choose simplicity, and (3) focus on serving others. If we can learn to be more grateful for what we have, simplify our lives, and put more effort into serving others, I think we’ll be well on our way to a happier, more sustainable world.
Our ability to be grateful can be one of the most important factors that determine our happiness. As the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reminds us, “Happiness . . . does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them.” This, he points out, brings us to the reasonable conclusion that “it seems that those who take the trouble to gain mastery over what happens in consciousness do live a happier life.” As the old saying goes, our happiness often boils down to whether we see the glass as half empty or half full.
Do I often look around and feel thankful for the number of good things going on in my life? Or do I look at what’s missing, what’s lost, or what hasn’t yet been attained? Rather than constantly being in a state of want, in a state of lack, in a deprived, craving mentality because we choose to focus on all the things we don’t yet have or haven’t yet achieved, we can instead choose a different focus. We can focus on what we feel grateful for. Through mindfully guiding our thought patterns, we can cultivate the attitude that our lives are abundant, full, and that we have plenty of everything we need. We don’t have to feel compelled to get a bigger home when the home we have is comfortable, cozy, and lovely in all its imperfection.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term that embodies the spirit of perfection in imperfection or taking pleasure in the imperfect. It stems from the idea that nothing is perfect, nor will it ever be. That piece of furniture with the slightly worn corners is perfect the way it is. It’s the worn corners that give it that special something. A little character, perhaps. The key to seeing things this way is a gratitude mindset.
When we’re not constantly shopping, spending, or upgrading the material things in our lives, we can actually save a lot. That means fewer credit card bills to pay, less stress and conflict about money in the family, less pressure to stay at the job you hate because the pay is good, and a greater ability to put some money away and feel more financially secure.
When we cultivate gratitude in our lives, we tend to switch our mentality from one of scarcity to one of abundance. It gives us a sense of confidence. A hop in our step. Coming from a place of abundance allows us to approach life more compassionately and less competitively, more collaboratively and less selfishly.
If we know that overall we’re doing fine, we’re going to be more willing to help others. Even if we’re not well off, even if money is tight, if we cultivate an attitude of abundance, we’ll find that we’re more often able to spare something to help someone else out. It’s this type of generous, altruistic spirit that binds us together, that creates community.
How to Increase Gratitude
Psychologists have found a simple routine to implement that does just the trick: gratitude journaling. At some point during the day, write down three things you are grateful for. It could be anything: The breakfast you had. A compliment you received at work. A nice phone call with a friend. Getting through your to-do list. A beautiful sunset. Once you begin this practice, you may find the number of things you’re grateful for increasing dramatically. It also can help remind us of our interconnectedness.
The evidence shows us that what really gives us happiness are the very things we’re not getting enough of: Social relations. Leisure. Community. Quality time with the people in our lives. Taking time for ourselves and enjoying the fruits of our labor. If social relations and leisure are important factors in our happiness, is modern society helping? As technology replaces social interaction, it increasingly isolates us. And ironically, with all our time-saving devices, it’s actually speeding up the pace of our lives, leaving us with less leisure time to just be and enjoy life.
Simplicity at its core is about removing the extra activities, possessions, and responsibilities that don’t bring us joy, so we can put more time and energy into the things that do. Perhaps there’s no greater advice on simplicity than that given by the American author, philosopher, and father of the environmental movement, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, who spent two years, two months, and two days at Walden Pond observing nature, journaling, and reflecting on life, believed that even during his lifetime in 1840s Massachusetts, people needed to simplify their lives: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he wrote. “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” I can certainly relate. Unfortunately, I often feel as though the items on my to-do list number closer to a thousand than two or three. And frankly, I have a lot less on my plate than many people.
Simple living, however, does not mean we need to go live in the woods like Thoreau. Duane Elgin, author of the classic Voluntary Simplicity, argues that living simply is not about living in poverty or deprivation. It’s about living an examined life in which one has determined what is truly important and how much is enough and then letting go of the rest.
Elgin’s research led him to the conclusion that “the American public has experienced . . . limited rewards from the material riches of a consumer society and is looking for the experiential riches that can be found, for example, in satisfying relationships, living in harmony with nature, and being of service to the world.”
He goes on to say that the call to live simply is both pulling and pushing humanity at the same time. “On the one hand,” Elgin says, “a life of creative simplicity frees energy for the soulful work of spiritual discovery and loving service—tasks that all of the world’s wisdom traditions say we should give our highest priority.” That’s a strong pull. But there’s also a push. “On the other hand,” he points out, “a simpler way of life also responds to the urgent need for moderating our use of the world’s nonrenewable resources and minimizing the damaging impact of environmental pollution.” That’s also true. “Working in concert, these pushes and pulls are creating an immensely powerful dynamic for transforming our ways of living, working relating, and thinking.”
Decluttering our spaces by removing what no longer brings us joy frees us up to pursue activities and experiences that do bring us joy. “As a result,” Marie Kondo writes, “you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.”28 These dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective, she argues, are life transforming. I’m so glad to see that her message resonates with so many people, because this shift to simplicity is exactly what we need to reduce the overconsumption that contributes to climate change.
Declutter Our Schedules
Let’s also embrace the value of simplicity for its own sake. As we slow down, take on fewer responsibilities and commitments, and declutter our schedule, we’ll find we have more time for relaxing, more time for our loved ones, more time for ourselves, more time just to enjoy being alive. And by the way, we’ll create a lot less carbon than we do rushing about in our currently overscheduled lives.
Money, it turns out, gives us a lot more happiness when it’s spent on experiences, rather than on things. So as we clean out our closets, getting rid of all the extra things we don’t need, we should make a mental note: the next time we’re tempted to make an impulse purchase, use that money instead on a fun excursion, a concert, or an evening out with a friend, which we’d be sure to enjoy more.
Time spent in the natural world reminds us that we are part of the biosphere. The plants, animals, bugs, mountains, waterways, and woodlands nearby are an extension of our homes and part of our community. It’s important for us to remember these natural areas surrounding us, to spend time in our local environment, and, hopefully, to cultivate a sense of stewardship in the process.
Science shows us, not surprisingly, that the area that gives us the most happiness, fulfillment, and meaning in our lives is our relationships. This is why rebuilding our sense of community is at the core of combatting the climate crisis.
The fast-paced, hyper-individualized materialistic world we’ve inherited was made by people. And as Frederick Douglass pointed out when analyzing the brutalities of slavery, “What man can make, man can unmake.” I was reminded of his words when I saw an inspiring poster at a bus stop recently that said “Tomorrow’s World Is Yours to Build.”
Wow. That’s a powerful message. And, frankly, very good news. I find it uplifting because it puts us in the driver’s seat. We have the ability to reinvent the world.
The cultural narrative of our day is very much focused on individual development, individual power, individual fulfillment—in other words, on “me.” My money, my stuff, my job, my image. Our individualistic culture is making us ever more anxious, ever more concerned with our appearance, and generally preoccupied with our life story—our personal narrative of the dramas of our day-to- day lives.
One way to break from this self-absorption is to direct our energy toward service. By service I mean serving other people, other living beings, for their primary benefit, and not our own. Not only do we end up better off by creating waves of positive impact that uplift our communities, but studies show that it makes us happier.
Why does service make us feel happy? A lot of reasons.
First and foremost, serving others allows us to connect with people and strengthen our relationships to them. As social animals, we get a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction from connecting with our friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, and fellow community members.
Nothing makes us feel more accomplished than helping others, lifting others up, and creating real impact in the lives of other people. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of these experiences. Serving others brings the best out of us and that feels great. And nothing feels better than giving your all, especially when it’s for someone or something you really care about.
Service isn’t something done only for the benefit of others. Because we are interconnected, whatever impact I have on others will undoubtedly affect me too. Whether we can measure the benefits of service or not, whatever benefits I provide to one person, I provide to the whole, which includes myself, and thus improves the situation for everyone.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
With the Earth and all life that depends upon it hanging in the balance, living a simpler life has become an imperative. The world simply cannot sustain 7.8 billion people living the lifestyle of the average American or anything close to it. If we don’t change our behaviors and tastes, driven by our underlying mindsets, we risk it all. But if we can shift our attitudes, minds, and behaviors toward living simply, with gratitude, with a purpose to serve, then not only can we avert planetary disaster, we may also find peace in our hearts and love in our communities. We may have more days filled with joy, ease, and happiness.
About the Author
Andreas Karelas is the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit organization that empowers people around the country to help nonprofits in their communities go solar and raise awareness about the benefits of clean energy. He is a dedicated clean-energy advocate with over 15 years of environmental and renewable energy experience. He is an Audubon TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellow and an OpenIDEO Climate Innovator Fellow. He lives and works in San Francisco. Connect with him at re-volv.org and on Twitter at @AndreasKarelas.