Going green is all about what you gain, not what you give up

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

It was written by Kate Laffan

According to The New Republic magazine in June this year: ‘You will have to make sacrifices to save the planet’, while the US newspaper Metro asks: ‘What would you give up to end climate change?’ These headlines, read from my desk in London where I carry out research in environmental psychology, present us with stark choices: between self and society, wellbeing and morality. It worries me to see pro-environmental action being equated with personal sacrifice in this way. It also makes me wonder whether we could change the content of a third recent headline, this time from Sky News – ‘Majority of Brits unwilling to cut back to fight climate change’ – by reframing how we talk about pro-environmental behaviour.

A growing body of research suggests that, rather than posing a threat to individual wellbeing, adopting a more sustainable lifestyle represents a pathway to a more satisfied life. Numerous studies have found that people who purchase green products, who recycle or who volunteer for green causes claim to be more satisfied with their lives than their less environmentally friendly counterparts. In the most systematic exploration of this relationship to date, the social psychologist Michael Schmitt at Simon Fraser University in Canada and colleagues found that, of the 39 pro-environmental behaviors examined, 37 were positively linked to life satisfaction (the exceptions being the use of public transport or carpooling, and running the washer/dryer only when full).

Digging deeper, the authors of this 2018 paper found that the strongest positive relationships were between life satisfaction and those behaviors involving a cost in money, time or effort. So, participating in local pro-environmental activities is far more predictive of life satisfaction than, say, turning off the tap while brushing your teeth (despite it being a more effortful undertaking). In complementary vein, when the psychologist Stacey Ann Rich at La Trobe University in Melbourne and colleagues looked at people on the far end of the sustainable lifestyle scale, they found that ‘voluntary simplifiers’ – or people who freely choose to live frugally – report higher life satisfaction than nonsimplifiers across several different studies. Far from suggesting that people lose out when they put significant effort into living a sustainable life, it seems that the more you put in the more you stand to gain.

This is promising evidence, but the measure used – life satisfaction – can miss some of the potential nuances in play when people think (and feel) about their lives as they go about them. My own research at the London School of Economics addresses this issue by examining how pro-environmental behaviors relate to different types of wellbeing. In particular, I make a distinction between hedonic wellbeing, which relates to the emotions that people experience, and eudemonic wellbeing, which reflects their sense of purpose.

There are good reasons to think that this distinction might matter. Some pro-environmental behaviors can boost people’s mood: imagine cycling to work rather than driving through central London traffic, for example. Other behaviors that are typically carried out on autopilot, such as recycling, might not be expected to have any impact at all. Still others might cause people to experience feelings of stress, as anyone who has recently tried to have a short, cold shower will attest.

Contrast this with how we might expect pro-environmental behavior to relate to people’s sense of purpose. The environmental psychologist Tim Kasser – an expert on materialism and wellbeing, and now emeritus professor at Knox College in Illinois – has argued that pro-environmental behavior can contribute to people’s needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence – all of them key drivers of eudemonic wellbeing. More directly, to the extent that people perceive engagement in a wide range of pro-environmental behaviors as ‘doing the right thing’, we might expect them all to contribute to people’s sense of purpose.

As part of my PhD, I examined these ideas using questionnaire data from a sample of more than 5,000 English residents. I found that people’s levels of happiness or anxiety were independent of their engagement in pro-environmental behavior on the previous day. This suggests that, while individuals might not derive pleasure from engaging in pro-environmental behavior, nor do these behaviors generally come at an emotional cost. At the same time, my research indicates that the more pro-environmental actions that people engage in, the more worthwhile they consider their activities to be overall.

When taken together, the life-satisfaction evidence and the results of my own work fly in the face of the view of pro-environmental behavior as a sacrifice and point instead to a range of potential psychological benefits of going green. We are still in the early stages of understanding what’s driving these apparent benefits, but recent work by the economists Heinz Welsch and Jan Kühling at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, among other scholars, suggests that conforming with social norms, having a positive self-image and opportunities to socialize all play a role.

Aeon counter – do not remove

If you style pro-environmental behavior as onerous, then moral appeals of the ‘You will have to make sacrifices to save the planet’ kind are never far behind. Better then, is to encourage people to take action on climate change by presenting environmental issues as personally relevant. The subjective wellbeing evidence gives us an opportunity to move our focus away from what people might have to give up or do without, and towards the potential gains of living not worse but differently. Such positive messages might better motivate pro-environmental actions that contribute directly to individual wellbeing, while at the same time safeguarding the wellbeing of others and of generations to come.

Kate Laffan is a fellow in the department of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In November 2019, she takes up a Marie Curie fellowship at the Geary Institute for Public Policy at University College Dublin. She lives in London.

What is Melancholia?

Depression is defined as pathological sadness – a disease for which there are a variety of treatments. I myself have suffered from episodes of severe depression, and I have successfully overcome these episodes with a combination of Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy, anti-depressant medication, exercise, and meditation. Because I have first-hand knowledge of depression and the effectiveness of treatment, I think it’s essential that I differentiate depression, which always involves some sort of disfunction, maladaptation, or physiological imbalance, from melancholia (as in The Black Sun,) which I define differently.

To put it simply, depression is a disease; so if you are depressed, something is wrong with you. You are feeling an overwhelming and continual despondency that is inappropriate to your particular circumstances, and more generally, atypical of a healthy, thriving human being. You have an illness that warps your perception of the world, and you need treatment.

However, when you experience melancholia, there is nothing wrong with you. The “symptoms” you are feeling – lethargy, pessimism, low motivation, slowness, emptiness, grief, loneliness and even thoughts of suicide – come from a deeply felt awareness of death, loss, and impermanence. These feelings are entirely appropriate to your situation, and to the human condition, and may reveal some essential truth about your world.

In melancholia, suicidal ideation is not a literal impulse to kill one’s physical body, but a longing for transformation, both of one’s identity and the world in which that identity is enmeshed. (In later blogs, I will introduce the concept of egoicide.) Melancholia is not a problem to be solved or a condition to be cured; it is a truth to be encountered, an experience to be felt more deeply, and a window to insight.

I associate melancholy with many of the topics that obsess me, including Buddhism, Post-Jungian psychology, Imaginal experience, mysticism, existentialism, art, aesthetics, cinema, and even mathematics. It’s a word that I will use often in this blog, and it’s important that readers understand that I am not romanticizing depression, rather, I am investigating a related, but unique state of conciousness.

In the Venn Diagram below, I’ve differentiated four separate kinds of sorrow or despondency. YELLOW is ordinary sadness, the kind of sadness we feel in response to common disappointments, failures, and losses. GREEN denotes depression as treated by CBT; it is a negative cognitive bias caused by negative automatic thoughtsmaladaptive behaviors, and/or dysfunctional world beliefs. BLUE is depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – a deficit of serotonin and dopamine. Pink, at the bottom, is melancholia.

It seems likely that most of us are feeling some mixture of these four elements when our mood is low. My point is not to argue whether the neurochemical model or the Cognitive/Behavioral model of depression is valid, but rather to differentiate depression-as-illness from melancholy.

In particular, I want to challenge our culture’s relentless pursuit of happiness and obsession with psychological growth. If sunny optimism defines what it is to be “healthy,” then the culture begins to see any encounter with the darker, more tragic, and rightly depressing aspects of life as “unhealthy.” Melancholia is seen as something to be avoided, like saturated fat, herpes or income tax.

When we “grow out of” every experience of deep sadness, then melancholia as a necessary, vital and enriching human experience, is denied and forgotten.

Future blogs will explore the idea that our inability to tolerate sadness (like our inability to tolerate boredom) results in a “positive cognitive bias” or patholgical happiness, which may ultimately be more destructive than depression. Lingering over the inevitability of death, illness, and decay disturbs our very American fantasies of perpetual expansion, economic growth, and boundless possibility.

(See my recent blog about the perverted symbolism of sunny, happy, optimism: The Tyranny of Sunlight. )

If melancholy is seen as just another problem to be solved by programs of self-improvement, then vital parts of the human experience fall into Shadow -unacknowledged and unspoken.

So, the process I’m exploring in this series of articles on The Black Sun is one that DOES treat the various forms of depression as illnesses, but the goal is not to eliminate the experience of deep and heavy sadness, but instead to correct our cognitive bias and right our neurological imbalance so as to allow for a more meaningful and transformative encounter with melancholy.

James Hillman described this process in “The Dream and The Underworld” as a deliberate descent into Hades. This descent humbles the “heroic” ego. It is not a quest with an objective, or a riddle that needs answer. It is a “move backward” rather than forward, a process that is “pathologizing” rather than healing; it is an experience that offers not happiness, progress or victory, but only meaning and depth; It is an unsettling and eerie encounter with a dream world that is both irrational and psychotic; it is a voyage into imaginal space, and eruption of the Ordinary Numinous in which we wrestle with archetypal entities, neither quite real or unreal, who are “deceptive, unpredictable, frightening, and wise.” It is the journey down into the mythical and the alchemical – a place that we can only interpret with metaphors or images, as we would a dream:

“The brood of night gives the dream an atmophere that is far from the happy optimism of growth psychology or the secret delight of sexual desire. We are not being told that our dreams help us, that they round out our lives and inflame our creativity. Nor are we being told that dreams pour out of a libidinous wishing well. Instead, they are akin to deceits and and conflicts, to the lamentations of ageing and the doom of our destiny. The dream takes us downward, and the mood that corresponds with this movement is the slowing, saddening, introspective feeling of melancholly.”

James Hillman, The Dream and The Underworld, pg. 34

So, using my own images, an experience of melancholy means peeling away the layers of yellow, green, blue, to reveal the red… and the black.

That “something that emerges” is represented by The Black Sun.

A Hollywood Screenwriter

One of the very best things I ever received in the mail was issue 23 of n+1 Magazine.

When I opened the magazine and read the table of contents, I saw under Kristin Dombek’s Advice From The Help Desk an article titled: A Hollywood Screenwriter. Intrigued that one of my favorite contributors had written something about the entertainment industry, I turned to page 91 and began reading a letter to Kristin asking for advice. I didn’t immediately recognize the letter as my own, just an uncanny sense the words wer familiar…

“When I started reading the first installment of the Help Desk, I assumed its title and contents were ironic. Halfway through, I realized that much of what you wrote was breathtakingly sincere. By the end, I found that almost every sentence could be read as either ironic or sincere, in the same way an optical illusion can be seen as a young woman or an old hag, but not as both at once. Either way, you wrote so deeply and extensively about each question, I found myself wanting to ask for your help, perhaps just to have you think so attentively about me, too.”

“However, as I thought about a question to ask you, I felt anxious. I began to worry that my problem would seem neither cleverly ironic nor lyrically sincere. What if you brushed off my question with a dismissive remark? What if, because you have so many questions sent to you, I got no response at all? It was this fear of your indifference and my inconsequence that helped me finally settle on the right question.”

“I have shared writing credit on several relatively high-budget movies, all of which were critical and box-office failures. I’ve realized, in midlife, that despite earnest dedication to my craft, I am ashamed of the work I’ve been involved in. None of it represents what I value artistically or politically. None of it expresses anything I think or feel. Worse than that, I fear that I’ve spent most of my fifteen-year career empowering shallow and immoral people to create cruel and witless films.”

“I pine for the same wry but authentic connection you make with the people who ask for your help, and I envy your satisfaction (as I imagine it) in moving your readers the way I was moved while reading the Help Desk.”

“How, as an artist, do I shed my failures and begin again?

Sincerely, A Hollywood Screenwriter”

I had written that letter during a spell of panicked insomnia months earlier, sent it to the magazine, and promptly forgot about it.

Kristin Dombek answered my question in the form of a fifteen-page essay, one that I have read and reread at least a dozen times over the last three years. Recently, it has taken on special meaning.

She writes about a lot of things, about the novella Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanial West, about the difficulty of giving advice to depressed friends, about cruel optimism and “the place where friendship and love become acts of invention, even of art.” For me, the essay embodies an idea that inspired Undergrids, that in an age of overwhelming content, a single reader paying careful attention is more meaningful than a million views.

Kristin’s article helped me navigate that particular pit of depression, and it continues to inspire me.

You can read it here:

Takashi Murakami

Apparently, I’m drawn to old Japanese men named “Murakami.” (The writer Haruki Murakami being the other.) Last night I saw an exhibition of Takashi Murakami’s paintings and sculpture at the Gagosian gallery.

What I like about Murakami is that his ultra-flat, extremely well-crafted works resonate with a feeling I often get living in our capitalist/consumer society: a sense of being overwhelmed by a perverse, explosive over-abundance of products and messages – all of them screaming ENJOY! HAPPY! MORE! MORE! like devil-possessed Teletubbies.

Murakami’s works have a fractal element so that walking closer to them feels like zooming in on a Mandelbrot set. (e.g. this Mandelbrot Video.)

Here (above) we have a Happy Flower made of flowers holding flowers in one hand and child-Happy-Flower in the other. Even the eyes (if I were able to zoom in further) are themselves multi-colored and micro-detailed.

There is so much fractal detail in th painting below that it ultimately exhausts and overwhelms any attempt to take it all in.

As one moves closer, the details are “self similar” to wider patterns of manic bunnies, rainbow flowers, a drippy glowing fluids. This is about 4% of the entire painting.

As we go even closer on one of the tiny individual characters, we find alive with disturbingly rich micro-detail. These little skulls are about a centimeter in diameter.

All the images are “Ultra-Flat.”

By ultra-flat, I mean that all the visual cues that usually provide depth (perspective, overlap, relative size, tone, hue) are eliminated or undermined so that the entire panel asserts itself in an insistent, overwhelming foreground.

Not only is no psychotic bunny in front or behind any other; all the bunnies seem to leap forward to assault the viewer at once. ENJOY! ENJOY! LOOK AT ME!

This same ultra-flatness is in all the details …

The scale of the pieces, echoing Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, enhance the sense of being overpowered and overwhelmed by these “cute,” hyperactive demons of enjoyment.

Ultimately, I came away with a deeper interest and appreciation for his work. In the past, because I am not particularly inspired by Pop Art and I am not a big consumer of Anime, his work didn’t resonate with me on a personl level as it does now. Perhaps it’s only recently that I’ve felt so assaulted by the obscene consumer-culture imperative to ENJOY.

Looking back over his earlier paintings, there is a lot that’s intriguing and worth more study.

… And lastly, Murakami’s signature character Mr. DOB looks weirdly similar to my signature character, Little Boy Bobby.