Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — Be Happy!
We’ve all heard it: Carbon dioxide billows into the atmosphere, icebergs melt, oceans rise, the world gets hotter — our planet is headed toward calamity. And, although businesses, governments, and individuals throughout the world have been working together to enact change, “our civilization is still failing miserably to slow the rate at which these emissions are increasing — much less reduce them,” wrote Al Gore in a New York Times editorial last week.
Sheesh. It’s enough to prevent you from getting out of bed in the morning, much less enjoy your day. But, if enjoying yourself — being happy — seems a trivial concern in the face of such doom and gloom, think again. While the study of happiness is hardly new and noteworthy — recent books include Rhonda Bryne’s The Secret (Atria Books 2006), a hokey, if ubiquitous, book that instructs us to manifest our own destinies through visualization and vibrations — a new set of pragmatic authors examines personal happiness as both a source of, and obstacle to, our ability to enact change.
Yale Law School graduate-turned-writer, Gretchen Rubin tackles happiness in the list-making spirit of a lawyer in The Happiness Project (HarperCollins 2009).
She sets out to “test-drive the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies and the lessons from popular culture — from Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah,” and takes us along as she checks off tasks on her very own happiness chart. (For example, January’s goal is to boost energy, so she resolves to “go to sleep earlier, exercise better, toss, restore, organize, tackle a nagging task, and act more energetic.”)
While happiness seems like an inherently selfish pursuit — all of this inner-reflection while the world around us falls apart — Rubin argues that, in fact, the opposite is true. “Studies show that happier people are more likely to help other people. They’re more interested in social problems. They do more volunteer work and contribute more to charity… [T]hey’re less preoccupied with their personal problems,” she writes.
“Some people assume that happiness makes people complacent. Quite the contrary. Happy people are more concerned with the problems of other people and more likely to take action to help. So by making myself happy, I arm myself to be more effective in addressing the world’s significant problems,” she writes.
Indeed. When I’m tired, I grumble about the ten extra steps to the recycle bin; when I’m in a hurry, I don’t spend the time to make educated choices at the supermarket — much less on anything of substance. By acting selfishly, attending to my own personal well-being, Rubin argues, I arm myself to act unselfishly, to find the energy and well-being needed to confront difficult tasks.
The problem arises when we take the mantra of personal well-being too far. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books 2009), Barbara Ehrenreich looks at what happens when happiness is privileged above all else — including fact.
According to Ehrenreich, it’s the happiness industry — born from a uniquely American culture of reckless optimism and the field of ”positive-psychology,” spearheaded by none other than Martin Seligman, and distilled into books such as The Secret — that motivated corporate boardrooms across the country to buy into a sort of mind-over-balance-sheet mentality. She traces the rise of positive psychology as a cultural mandate — only good news today, please — until the point of delusion, wherein “science is something that you can accept or reject on the basis of personal tastes.”
Indeed, the very title of Gore’s op-ed is “We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change.” He writes, “It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicated that we do not face an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.”
Yet, we don’t have the luxury of indulging in that relief. The paradox is that the realm of positive psychology privileges this mental relief above the actual distressing facts, yet positive thinking arms us with perhaps the necessary delusion that we can stop the tide of global calamity. We must strike a balance between genuine and legitimate fear regarding climate change and the positivism that allows us to believe that we can do something about it, that we can change the way things are going.
Ultimately, while Rubin and Ehrenreich seem to view happiness from opposite angles, the conclusion they reach is strikingly similar. “The threats we face are real,” writes Ehrenreich, “and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.” For Rubin, the point of all this happiness striving — the point of her checklists and daily reminders — is so we may become less self-obsessed, less introspective, more likely to step outside our comfort zones and do something.
So, get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise. Tackle nagging tasks. Enjoy your work. Cultivate relationships. Make the effort to get out and connect with people. And then, perhaps, call your Senator, as Gore advocates. Grow your own produce, recycle, and spend an hour a week volunteering. And watch how these activities, these unselfish attempts to tackle a very large, un-happy problem, might ultimately bring you (selfishly) even more happiness.
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