I’ve been saying since the No Impact Man project first started in 2007 that lasting personal happiness does not come without contributing to community and world happiness. But there are big issues that stop us from trying to contribute or that make us really frustrated when we do try.
I know this because I recently sent out a survey to readers and followers and one question I asked was: What obstacles do you face when it comes to feeling like your efforts in life are helpful to the people and the world around you? (By the way, you can still participate in the survey here and you may win a free, signed copy of No Impact Man if you do).
Here is one obstacle to feeling useful that many, many people have cited so far: Feelings of futility. Like nothing you do matters.
If you have that feeling, you are not alone (the survey results don’t lie). Managing feelings of futility–when they come–has certainly been a big part of my experience and also that of the many people I have had the privilege to meet who are trying to make a difference in the world.
But just because you feel your efforts are futile doesn’t mean they are futile. Believing those feelings, and letting yourself stall or not start with your efforts to help, is a terrible loss. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I have put together some tools that I and many others use to deal with futility:
1. Realize there is a difference between the world not changing fast enough and you being useless: You could ask, for example, what has the climate movement or #BlackLivesMatter or Occupy or your work as a Sustainability officer or a community gardener done to make things better? I say, imagine how much more quickly things might be getting worse if we weren’t trying to reverse the tide.
2. Instead of focussing on how bad the opposition is, focus on how amazing your allies are: Don’t think about the power of the oil companies or of your boss or whomever else stands in your way. Don’t think about the ignorance of people who don’t seem to care. Think about how much love and effort and beauty your allies are putting into the work alongside you.
3. Realize that anger and fear will burn you out. People say that without our anger and fear we will not bother to change. But actually, the research shows that anger and fear motivates us to concentrate on taking care of ourselves more than others. If you get in touch with the love and compassion for those you originally hoped to help, you will be sustained.
4. Take care of yourself: Eat properly. Exercise. Engage in your spiritual practice. Rest. Have fun. Too many of us turn ourselves into ascetics for the sake of our causes. We abuse ourselves. Then we wonder where our energy went. Treat yourself like a well-valued agent of change that needs to be taken care of in order to function optimally.
5. Count our blessings: It is so easy to keep telling ourselves how far we have to go. For example, I sometimes get depressed because a billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. But I try to remember that six billion people do! A long time ago, people had to drink weak beer because water was too dangerous everywhere. One way to believe we can move forward is to realize how far we have come.
6. Create boundaries: So many people I know spend all their time thinking about what they want to change and all their time socializing with people who want to change the same thing. You can’t always be hanging out with other change agents, however, if you want to maintain your mental health. Spend time with friends outside your circle of allies who don’t talk about your issue all the time.
7. Accept that it is appropriate to feel sad and frustrated: There are a lot of things in the world that need work and change. A lot of sad things are happening. But your sad feelings are not about your efforts but about the reasons you are making an effort.
8. Build your optimism muscle: People say that being optimistic is foolish. But the research shows that optimists continue their efforts long after the pessimists quit. Don’t say the CEOs still love oil even after the march. Tell yourself 400,000 people showed up to the march. Tell yourself happy stories about what you have accomplished and will accomplish.
9. Realize how lucky you are to be in the position to try at all: So many people care about the world but are so caught in their lives that they don’t ever get the chance to do what is meaningful to them. As futile as you feel, be grateful that you get to put at least some effort into what is important to you.
10. Be grateful for your enlightenment: Sometimes I get so mad at people who don’t see the crises in the world. But then I think back to the days before I started working for change. Things happened that made me suddenly begin to understand. But I did nothing to earn that understanding. Enlightenment does not give us the right to judge but the responsibility to educate.