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Can Happiness Save the World? Self-Help in Urgent Times

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Colin Beavan, “No Impact Man”, wants us to feel better, find our True Selves, and be connected. How To Be Alive is his latest work.

By Robin Jacobs Posted Feb 2, 2016


After rising to prominence with No Impact Man, a chronicle of his year-long experiment to live as greenly as possible in New York City, writer Colin Beavan says he’s figured out how to “have it all”: a comfortable, fun life AND the satisfaction of “doing good” for the planet.

With his recent book How to Be Alive, he’s ready to start a movement of “lifequesters” who reject “standard life approaches” in favor of finding their own truth. The happier we become, he says, the more we find ourselves naturally supporting the greater good. Linking good works with feelings of well-being is neither modern nor controversial — Aristotle may have been the first to propose the connection in writing in his Nicomachean Ethics. And Americans have been preoccupied with being our own unique selves since we’ve been called Americans. So why this book, right now?

As I read, I began hearing an unwritten question, to which this book is one possible response. Why aren’t well-meaning liberals doing more to change our habits as the dragon of climate change breathes down our necks? Naomi Klein has faulted the environmental movement for trying to terrify people into action. Unfortunately, scare tactics make most of us stick our heads in the sand. Instead, Klein believes, we need to make people excited about the potential benefits that could result from a real overhaul of our cultural norms. How to Be Alive starts from that premise: instead of ominous predictions and a list of urgent necessary changes, we find a gentle path to a “fun-filled” Green life nestled in a like-minded community, rich with meaning and adventure.

I am on Colin Beavan’s side. I support the suggestions he has assembled for “the good life”:

Reduce car dependency, use your body to get around whenever possible.

Raise children in community, and only procreate biologically if you feel strongly you should.

Eat simple, low-impact food, and

Stop buying stuff you don’t really need.

Yet I found myself frustrated by his insistence on navel-gazing as our first priority, and by his tone that panders to our reluctance to step outside our comfort zone.

How to be alive by Colin Beavan

Is the Personal Political?

Wildly ambitious in scope, How to Be Alive wants to coach you through becoming empowered, hosting a party, making art, cooking vegetarian, reconfiguring your sex life, creating an alternative family structure, volunteering for a good cause, and cleaning your closet, just for starters. It asks you to keep this book “always within easy reach… You’ll want to work through it again and again in different ways.” (p.18) But it doesn’t talk about real solutions to our global crisis, only solutions to an internal crisis of guilt, isolation, and disempowerment.

Following his own suggestion, Beavan works through his material again and again, in different ways. Crowd-sourced personal stories are peppered throughout, following the example of Chicken Soup for the Soul. These first-person narratives provide a nice sense of community: we all want to hear how others are finding their way. Well-established ideas from icons Byron Katie, Joseph Campbell, Carl Rogers, Carl Jung, and Michael Pollan make appearances, and we find tips reminiscent of such bestsellers as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, What Color is Your Parachute, and The Power of Now. Ultimately, so many sources leads to a shallow treatment of each — nor is there much detail about the kind of “help” the world needs, just more exercises: how we’d like to divide our time, who will speak at our funeral. Do the young urban liberals who seem to be Beavan’s target audience really need to be advised to “commit to not committing” (p.404)? Not from my observation.

Similarly, the “scientific evidence” invoked to back up opinions are research sound bites: out of context, they lack the thoughtful caution that scientists apply to their own work. “Research shows that the less lonely people are the more they help the world.” Now, Beavan does not provide a citation for this claim, so I can’t check out what research he’s really talking about. How do you measure who is “helping the world”, and how much? Perhaps people who describe themselves as lonely report less altruistic activity. There is a correlation between the two descriptors. Does that mean the loneliness is causing the lack of altruism? Or that the lack of altruism is causing the loneliness? Or that there is a third factor that influences both? Scientists, in general, reserve judgment: their job is simply to measure the outcomes of their experiment and then design further experiments to further narrow the field of possibilities. Again, we’re skimming over too much surface, missing out on substance.

The essential ideas in How to Be Alive could boil down to a persuasive 2000 word blog post, plus a bibliography for deeper study. Here’s my summary of Beavan’s familiar prescription for better living:

Look within: Find your inner truth, ignore conventional wisdom and external expectations. “Good news: all we have to do is wake up to ourselves.”

Follow your bliss: When you’re in touch with your inner truth, you can’t help but do good in the world.

Start small: Just do one easy thing, which will naturally lead to bigger changes without stress. Let action be the remedy for feelings of powerlessness and David-like insignificance in the face of a Goliath of a global crisis.

Too little too late? Vanessa Farquharson, author of Sleeping Naked is Green, proposes that it’s better to take baby steps in the right direction than do nothing at all. Absolutely! But the shelves are stocked with confessional Green-lifestyle books: Farm City, Farewell My Subaru, Greasy Rider, etc. At best, the trend looks like an entertaining reality-TV style distraction, or more cynically, a growth industry for underemployed writers. We can read about others’ awkward baby steps and backsliding and feel better about our own imperfections. These authors tend to ruminate on the small personal details of their ecological impact and largely ignore the “drier” subjects of how to support necessary legislation, sustainable urban planning, clean energy policy, public transit funding, and industrial standards reform. Under their showy lifestyle modifications, are these memoirists letting themselves — and us — off the hook for looking beyond their own backyards?

Even within the realm of individual lifestyle, we could use some sensible priorities: Farquharson, for example, seems deeply concerned about her toilet paper use, but uninterested in challenging her vastly higher-impact habit of hopping on a jet plane for such recreational impulses as joining an eco-themed bicycle tour. Are these eco-bestsellers really part of the solution when they present such dubious role models for sustainable living? After all, we didn’t block the Keystone Pipeline by remembering our reusable shopping bags, but through years of civic protests and voting in smart leaders.


Fixated on Fun

“We’re going to assume that the best life is one where making yourself happy makes other people happy and making other people happy makes you happy.” (p.19) This is an easy sell in an individualistic culture where comfort and fun run the show. But doesn’t meaningful change sometimes create a worthwhile form of stress, not to mention resistance and even anger from others? Beavan is at pains to assure the reader “it is not about sacrifices” (p.19). If we start out from the beginning assuming that it should all feel good and joyful, it may be hard to get through the negative feelings that can arise when we challenge ourselves. Maybe sacrifice is necessary and productive. If I give up my luxury tropical vacation in favor of two weeks knocking on doors in my neighborhood for a political fund-raising drive, I may experience a variety of complicated feelings about that choice, especially on a rainy day when I’ve been treated contemptuously and only managed to collect $10. I’m going to need some support to help me persevere and continue to offer a meaningful contribution. If I’m expecting fun and easy emotional pay-offs, I’m likely to head home and book that Costa Rican spa package.

While the advertising industry fans the flames of self-indulgence with many variations on “Because you’re worth it”, eco-self-help like How to Be Alive attempts to use the momentum of feel-good ‘me-centric’ culture to turn readers away from consumerism and “standard life approaches”. You’ll be happier when you “want what you really want” (hint: it’s not more stuff).

This fixation on happiness deserves questioning: it wasn’t always a given. When the “pursuit of happiness” was immortalized in the Declaration of Independence, such a priority was still novel. Earlier generations believed in hard work, good deeds, and stoicism: remember the Puritans? But a steady tide of increasing abundance and leisure turned our cultural currents, and “happiness” became our eternal pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. By conceiving of happiness as a fundamental right, we learned to strive for the “happy childhood”, the “happy marriage”, the “golden years” of retirement, etc. Contrast those expectations with reality, and we can’t be too surprised by our high divorce rates, massive overconsumption, anxious over-parenting, and rampant depression.

A Russian saying holds that “a person who smiles all the time is either a fool or an American.” With our Happy Birthdays, Happy Meals, and relentless smiley emoticons, are we trying too hard to be happy, and losing our way in the process?

Protestors in Paris

The Mystery of our Own Inaction

Why are we Americans doing so little to “help the world”? Is it simply because no one has shown us how to shop at the farmer’s market or think critically about advertising messages? Or does it go deeper than that? Habits, especially those with roots in childhood, are sticky. Political beliefs, along with lifestyle habits, may be largely inherited. In addition, your level of political engagement (how much you read, think, and talk about world events) is also likely to mirror your parents’. We all tend to think the “other” group is ignoring the facts, but even if people hold viewpoints which seemingly contradict all scientific evidence, exposing them to “facts” only tends to strengthen their conviction.

Human psychology plays a big role, but it’s not enough to assume that because we’re all essentially good people, following our hearts is the solution. Does the world need for Americans to get to know ourselves better and feel more fulfilled, or does it simply need us to drastically reduce our consumption levels? For Beavan, the first will gently lead to the second, but I’m not convinced.

Only about one-third of Americans (even fewer than last year) feel much concern about global warming, extinction, or habitat devastation. Even if our political subculture believes we have a responsibility to our climate, we get distracted by the personal urgencies of our daily lives. Why can’t we care more (and act more) about what is beyond our family’s immediate comfort and safety?

We’ve been thrust into a global society, but our evolution has prepared us to respond to what we see and feel, and to share information through emotionally-driven stories. Despite our recent love affair with research statistics, we are driven by primitive urges for survival and protection of our family and tribe. This is why so many Americans care more about the threat of terrorism than the acidifying oceans. Terrorism is a story experienced as a threat to personal physical safety, and we can respond using the same instinct our ancestors used to avoid the saber-toothed cat, whose attacks were doubtless publicized through cautionary story telling. Even if statistics show the odds of an American being killed by a terrorist rank well below causes of death such as food poisoning, falling out of bed, and being struck by lightning, the facts do not touch the fear, because the stories are so visceral. It requires only an emotional response, not an ethical one.

Global warming, on the other hand, involves heady academic explanations about things that are happening high in the atmosphere and far away on ice-caps we’ve never seen. Most of us in the “first world” will be cushioned from the worst impacts of climate change within our own lifetime, so taking decisive action requires an intellectual choice to protect the well-being of people or creatures in distant parts of the world or in the future, weighed against other more immediate concerns. On the other hand, when we do envision climate change as a story, it’s too big. The threat makes a saber-toothed cat seem like a kitten: it feels like an apocalypse, and can cause a protective emotional shut-down, followed by avoidance of the topic. The eco-memoirists try to lighten the story-telling, using themselves as comic protagonists in the struggle against the modern plague of pointless consumption. Unfortunately, they have little to teach, since like most of us they can’t even clearly see or understand their adversary. Can we make a compelling human story about climate change that doesn’t trivialize or distract? The only visible beast at our door today is strange weather, and our houses are so snug and tight. Besides, for millenia, humans have experienced the weather as a force beyond our control.


Where do we go from here?

If we stop expecting the majority of Westerners to respond to climate science, what then? Perhaps, through word-of-mouth, we influence social norms so that cycling, low-impact foods, thrift-store fashions and anti-consumerist attitudes become a way to fit in to a group, make friends, and gain respect. These are familiar trends in some progressive cities, but limited by subculture and political leanings. Ultimately the rules need to change: sensible regulations must limit or influence consumer choices. This may be the only way to affect the behavior of those who don’t already believe they should change their behavior (since exposure to facts probably won’t work), or who are having trouble following through with their intentions to change (because they’re preoccupied with basic needs such as financial or relationship security). If it were radically more expensive to drive a car, driving would become a decision at the level of personal resources. If the worst unsustainable agricultural, manufacturing, and packaging practices were prohibited, the choices on our supermarket shelves would change, and shoppers would adjust accordingly. The cheap plastic junk from those notorious mega-polluting factories in China would simply disappear from shelves, and no one would miss it. A carbon tariff is a good place to start, along with a tariff on carbon-intensive imported goods. As voters, we are all involved in “big picture” changes, especially in an election year.

Our grandparents were under a lot of pressure to follow the “standard life approaches” that Beavan disparages. Recent generations of Americans grew up in a “be true to yourself” culture, without becoming overall either happier or better citizens. Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out that “The real work of ‘saving the world’ goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.” For his sequel, Kolbert suggested that Beavan use his prominence to lobby for mass transit improvements. Instead, he encourages us to follow his example in assuming “it’s all about me.” He assumes that being happy will make you good, so we should keep chasing those rainbows. But what if he’s got it backwards, and being good will make you happy? Or alternatively, what if some things are more important than being happy?

Readers of No Impact Man sometimes felt perplexed by Beavan’s seeming naiveté. Did it really take him that long to figure out he could use a cloth handkerchief in place of disposable tissues? He wrote No Impact Man, he has said, because it was the only one of a list of projects his agent thought he could sell. The New York Times wondered if the stunt was simply “an ethically murky exercise in self-promotion”, and it’s easy to imagine how tempting it must have been to follow up on that book’s high visibility. But much of How to Be Alive feels cobbled together with the weak glue of Beavan’s media-driven experience of environmentalism, washed by a glaze of wishful thinking. The belief that affluent liberals’ voluntary lifestyle adjustments will “save the world” is a dangerous oversimplification.

If you’re looking for unflinching passion, depth of knowledge, and practical paths to action, read Eaarth by Bill McKibben. Read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. Read Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall to begin to question why it is so hard for us to face and respond to these frightening yet urgent pressures. Then go to and click on “Get Involved”.

We each have one lifetime. We North Americans are already good at prizing our own feelings and impulses above all else. How is that working for us? Are we ready to challenge ourselves to deeply change our own lifestyles, and to rally for big systemic changes on behalf of those who have the lowest carbon footprint, but will feel the worst effects of climate catastrophe? Getting to know ourselves is great, but it’s not a prerequisite for action. We all want to come up with a brilliant book-worthy “hack” to solve these frightening challenges, and we all want it to be easy. But wishing doesn’t make it so. The writers who deserve your time freely admit the complexity we face, and attack an aspect they’re qualified for. Now is a time for joining in action with those leaders who have earned our trust. Our personal shopping, transportation, and energy choices matter — but an eye on the big picture will guide us better than the one focused within.

Robin Jacobs grew up in the “back to the land” movement in rural Maine, and then made her way to the west coast where she now practices some of the same values of simplicity and sustainability with her husband and daughter. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology, with special interests in holistic nutrition and community systems.

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