Sustainability as a Path to a More Meaningful Life

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.

Digital Minimalism for your Cellphone

Cellphones.

A modern marvel or a plague on society?

A bit of both I’d say.

Cellphones are of course amazing in many ways, they help us communicate more efficiently than we have ever been able to in the past. We are able to pull up maps anywhere in the world to navigate with the push of a button. We have access to the greatest single collection of human knowledge ever created instantaneously.

But there is of course a downside. Increased use of social media is associated with more anxiety and depression. Exposure to blue light from screens causes eye strain and difficulty sleeping. The average American adult spends just under four hours a day on their cell phone and teenagers get an average of nine hours of time online a day.

Ideally a phone is a tool you use to help you be more efficient, but with all the time phones take up it can really feel like phones are using us.

So, how do we turn this around? For me, the answer is digital minimalism. Now before I get into all of this let me say that I am not a perfect person, bad habits are hard to break and when my mental health is poor I still have periods in which I binge watch hours of content on my phone. But, the tips I’m about to share with you have helped me to reduce my screen time and stress.

Turn off Notifications

For me, opening my phone to a dozen or more notifications is very stressful. The stimulation is overwhelming and I feel compelled to check on every single thing. Even if I didn’t actually want to go on Snapchat, Instagram, or check my email I’ve suddenly spent a few minutes on each app and allowed myself to be dragged into mindless media consumption.

The only apps on my phone I now receive notifications from are messaging apps, phone calls, voicemail, download updates from Ecosia (my web browser) and the Google Play store, Google maps, my blue light filter, Daylio (a mood tracker),  and system notifications that I am not able to turn off.

So this means that instead of being prompted to use an app by notifications, I am prompted to use apps by just my own desires. Now my brain often desires to binge watch youtube videos, but it helps to not have extra reminders.

My recommendation would be to disable notifications for any app that you don’t specifically want or need the notifications for. For me the big notification distractions I’ve disabled came from email, social media, shopping and entertainment apps. My current practice is to disable notifications for all new apps as soon as I download them.

Set Quiet Hours

Now that you’ve gotten rid of excess notifications, you may find it enjoyable to take a break from notifications all together during certain times of the day. Both apple and android phones have built in features that allow you to receive no, or very limited notifications during specific hours. When I use quiet hours on my cell phone, I usually set them from 11:30 PM to 9:30 AM because I sleep 12AM-8AM, this allows me a half hour before bed and an hour in the morning with fewer distractions. 

I don’t always have quiet hours set on my phone though, only when I have been particularly distracted by my phone or am very busy in a given week and need to focus on managing time as effectively as possible.

Don’t Use Your Phone on the Toilet (For Quick Visits)

If you know that your bathroom trip will be a quick one leave your phone in another room (or inside your bag in you’re out and about). This one was surprisingly impactful for me, it may sound silly, but just a few minutes scattered throughout my day without extra stimulation really lowers my stress and helps keep me present.  However, if I’m sick and I know I may be on the toilet for more than ten minutes, I usually bring my phone with me because it’s nice to be distracted in that situation.

Try a Blue Light Filter

What is blue light? Blue light is a portion of the light spectrum that is produced in high concentrations by electronic screens as well as natural light. Blue light exposure is associated with needing more time to fall asleep, lower quality sleep, eye strain, and headaches. If you find that anytime you spend a lot of time looking at a screen you get headaches or have light sensitivity to other light sources like myself, I highly recommend this tip.

A blue light filter will make the colors your phone emits warmer and give your screen an orange or red tint. Adjusting to the new aesthetic can be a bit hard to get used, but after a while I hardly noticed the difference and it has been well worth the decrease in headaches and eye strain. Most phones have a built in blue light filter you can toggle on and off from your notification center, or you can download a dedicated blue light filter app to get more options. I use the Twilight app which is free for android phones.

Declutter Apps

Periodically review your app list and just delete any apps you are no longer using. Consider deleting apps you use regularly if that app has an easy to use mobile website, for example youtube. It can be nice to simply have less icons on your screen to look at. You may also want to delete apps you are overusing, such as social media and email and only access those accounts on your computer. For apps you don’t use but cannot delete, remove them from your home screen or tuck them into a folder together so they are no longer clutter.

I also recommend deleting any apps you use only to kill time but do not really enjoy, overuse or check compulsively. For me, these apps have included email, social media, and mobile phone games. I’ve found that instead of always looking at my phone when I am waiting in lines or have down time I enjoy having moments throughout the day to think and appreciate my surroundings.

If you aren’t sure whether you want to delete an app just go for it and see how it feels! You can always re-download the app later.

Organize Your Apps

Having a uniform system in place to organize your apps will make it easy to find them as well decide where to put new downloads without much thought. I recommend placing apps that are similar near each other on your home screen or putting them in folders together. I personally prefer the folders method so that I don’t have to flip between multiple screens, but I know many prefer not to keep every app in a folder so they don’t “lose” them. Do whatever works best for you.

Below you can see the categories I’ve organized my home screen into and the categories are largely self explanatory. Only the apps I use regularly have an icon on my home screen, there are several that only have icons in my app finder and I use the same folder system there. The podcast app is no longer in a folder because it was the only app  within its folder, and I just felt it looked nicer this way.

Simplify Your Keyboard

When I last got a new phone in January the out of box default keyboard settings included text prediction, auto correct, auto capitalization, a text to speech button, key press pop ups, and swipe typing. Many find these features helpful but for me all the extra movement is just too distracting and my typing is actually more accurate and faster without any of them. If you are unsure, just experiment with turning some features off as you can always flip them back on later. Plus, turning off your auto-correct may improve your grammar and spelling once you’re past the learning curve.

Those are my tips for digital minimalism on your cell phone!

Did you like these tips? Do you have some of your own? Let me know in the comments below.