In her book, Braving the Wilderness, researcher and storyteller, Brené Brown, recounts a story of women who lived in a village and would gather by the river often to wash their clothes together. These women all moved onto the latest technology – washing machines – and, not long afterwards, the rates of depression in the village increased. It wasn’t the washing machines per se causing the depression, but the loss of connection, social interaction, the sense of belonging and community that was a consequence of gathering by the river to do the washing. Without this daily ritual these women were lonely.
Many of us can see ourselves in these women. The rates of depression and anxiety are increasing, but our feelings of happiness are not. It’s hardly surprising. Humans are social beings, hard-wired for connection: we will seek it out in any way we can. Today, instead of regularly meeting friends and family by the river we engage with strangers via the internet, finding our “tribe” among people we do not know and very often we do not have lasting relationships with. It is no coincidence that we are more divided than ever.
One of the top 5 regrets of the dying is that they wished that they hadn’t worked so hard. Another is that they wished they’d been brave enough to pursue the life they’d really dreamed of, without worrying about what others thought; that they’d had the courage to do the things that made them truly happy. Which is ironic, really, because according to the 18th-century economist and philosopher, Adam Smith, wealth is something that is “desired, not for the material satisfaction that it brings, but because it is desired by others”. People are getting to the end of their lives regretting that they worked so hard – often to accumulate wealth so that others could envy it – wishing that instead they had pursued things that truly made them happy regardless of what people thought. What a lesson we could learn from these people’s dying realisations.
It is reminiscent of the tale of the Fisherman and the Businessman. The Fisherman already lived a life that dreams are made of. He had time for fishing, his family and friends, rest, music and conviviality. The Businessman wanted him to abandon all of that to create an empire and spend all his best years growing that empire, so that eventually, in retirement, he could go back to living the life of his dreams. How many of us are caught up in that cycle, or more accurately, a system that perpetuates that cycle?
Have many of us, especially those of us who live in ‘wealthy’ nations, forgotten what it means to be human? Have we, instead, become primarily ‘consumers’? Our days are spent consuming advertising, social media feeds, plastic-packaged and processed food, novel experiences and date nights out, travel packages and red-hot deals, streaming services and the latest games, books, electronics and endless ‘stuff’. Everything and anything that the ‘market’ can provide.
Reducing our consumption is of course important for the health of the planet, but what if one way to do this is by becoming producers, or creators, ourselves? Rediscovering what our human energy – an abundantly available energy we seem to be using increasingly less of – can achieve, something we once innately drew upon, now buried deep within us as fossil-fuelled energy has overtaken our lives. There’s a clear link here to actions that will mitigate climate change: walking, cycling, growing our own food, and other low-tech solutions such as repairing and fostering community that encourages “social connections … rather than fostering the hyper-individualism encouraged by resource-hungry digital devices.”
Beyond the obvious climate solutions, if we become creators of art and craft, gardens, music, songs and dance, poetry and writing, relationships and connection, and any myriad of things we humans can create, we may find that we no longer need to consume what the ‘market’ is offering. We can use our human energy and ingenuity to create genuine contentment and joy, not fill a void with momentarily pleasurable, but ultimately unsatisfying, “things”.
It has been well-documented that spending time in nature improves our mental well-being. It literally makes us happier. But it’s something we do very little of. Research shows that, on average, “North Americans spend over 93 percent of their waking hours indoors or in cars (and the other 7 percent is spent travelling between buildings and cars)”. Not only will we be happier if we spend more time in nature, but we will find ourselves more connected to our planet. We cannot truly respect and appreciate nature for all that she provides us unless we spend time with her. How can we value the trees merely for existing, when we haven’t watched them grow, and we don’t know which species they house? How can we care about species loss when we cannot name the species that live in our own community?
We are not supposed to live like this, and it shows. We can see it in the deterioration of the mental and physical health of people in so-called ‘wealthy’ nations, in the exploitation of people in the Global South, and we can see it in the planetary-wide ecological crisis we face. What if, in trying to heal ourselves, we also begin to heal the planet? Because, in a wonderful turn of events, it would seem that what is good for us, is good for the planet too.
This article is also published on Resilience.org. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.