If I’ve learned anything over the last four years of earning my psychology degree it’s that humans are obsessed with meaning making.
Many things that are good for our mental health are things that drive a sense of meaning and purpose. Routines help life feel less random. Social connections moor us in an interconnected web of other people so we don’t feel alone. Volunteering and work let us feel helpful and fulfilled. Having hobbies and passion projects allow us to create and accomplish tangible things. And we’ve developed complex spiritual practices throughout all of history that help us make sense of our world, feel connected to it, and create meaning.
Having something to do and some kind of purpose beyond ourselves is a central aspect of the human habit of meaning making and integral to our mental wellbeing. Experiencing existential dread is essentially the opposite of experiencing meaning and is a major red flag signaling depression.
Personally, I’ve had plenty of experience feeling depressed and full of existential dread and I know that worrying too much about climate change is usually considered quite depressing. And sure, just sitting around and worrying about it is probably going to make you feel bad.
However, when you decide to start doing something about climate change every choice you make is suddenly an opportunity to do good by the planet and be part of the movement.
Picking up bamboo toothbrushes isn’t just a boring chore but your opportunity to vote with your dollar and tell companies you’re no longer interested in plastic. Every meatless meal or plant based substitute for an animal product is help in the fight against deforestation and animal cruelty.
The weekly grocery trip becomes a challenge to be as sustainable as possible and take advantage of as many low waste foods as you can. As you switch more of your conventional beauty and personal care products to eco friendly ones you’ll feel the pride within you grow by starting each day with a reminder of your sustainable commitment.
You’ll relish in the opportunity to mend something broken and feel a sense of stubborn pride when your friends and family roll their eyes at your insistence on buying your clothes and electronics second hand.
While your loved ones might think you’re strange, you also might see them change their behavior after a while too. A few folks might start using reusable shopping bags, wrap your Christmas gifts in old newspaper, and even come to you for advice on environmental issues.
You learn that every choice you make has an environmental impact. From what you eat, wear, and do to how you dispose of you things you don’t need. Therefore every choice you make is an opportunity to be good, or bad, to our planet.
This fact is at once overwhelming but the precise reason that sustainability is an ideal lifestyle change to help make your life more meaningful. Mundane and boring everyday activities now become a way to be part of a movement and help save the planet.
Beyond that, making your lifestyle more sustainable will naturally lead you to become more interested in other areas of sustainability. You might find yourself communing with nature, doing DIYs, or learning new skills as a result of your sustainable lifestyle.
I’m of course not saying that sustainable living is going to cure anyone of their existentialism or depression. However, sustainability is usually discussed as something that is just going to bum people out or make them depressed when that just isn’t the case.
If you’re able to focus on the positive impact you can have, rather than only the scary aspects of our climate crisis sustainable living might help you find some greater sense of purpose like it’s done for me.
I still have bad days, and like I said above sustainable living hasn’t fixed all my mental health problems. But overall it has helped a lot. Now, my actions align with my values and I don’t feel so guilty about things. I still worry about climate change, but I know that I’m doing something about it and am part of the solution and not the problem.
Trying to be as sustainable as possible also brings some excitement and little challenges to my day. I feel good about myself when I resist purchasing something I’m tempted by, bring my own container somewhere, or choose to buy the more sustainable version of something. All these little boosts in mood add up and living out my values creates a satisfaction unachievable through other means.
Overall, making my lifestyle more sustainable has helped my mental wellbeing and I can honestly say that I’m happier now than I was before. And this basic idea that aligning your lifestyle to your values improves your mental health can apply to pretty much any lifestyle changes you want to make.
As with all changes, there will be challenges. You’ll have to learn new things and it’s easy to beat yourself up when you make mistakes and slip into old habits. But if you get past these slumps and pitfalls you’re not likely to want to go back to your old ways when you experience all the positivity that comes with going green.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. How has sustainable living effected your mental health? Do you feel that sustainability or other lifestyle habits have provided you with more sense of meaning? Let me know in the comments below.