Between global warming, the current administration’s anti-climate change stance, mass extinctions, and ecological devastation, it’s not hard to get depressed about the future of the planet, particularly so if you feel helpless.
“Qualitative research provides evidence that some people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change,” according to a recent paper by the American Psychological Association on the mental health impacts of climate change.
This “eco-anxiety,” as some have referred to it, can turn into chronic stress. And the more engaged you are, the worse it gets.
But while psychology gives us a way to talk about these feelings of dread and despair, it can also offer tools to overcome them. Hope, it turns out, is not so much a thing you feel but an emotion you construct and nurture. Anyone with the right tools can build hope. And, as a happy side effect, feeling hopeful about the future and actually working towards a better future go hand in hand.
“People can feel hopeful when they feel they are able to do something and see a way for it to be accomplished,” Janet Swim, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, tells Inverse. Swim led an APA task force on the psychological aspects of climate change, which reported findings in 2009.
“Our research of late has been focusing on empowering people by building hope,” she says. “When thinking about hope, it is useful to see its relation with fear. Both hope and fear reflect uncertainty about the future but hope suggests that there is some possibility of a positive outcome. Hope is also different from optimism. Optimism indicates an assessment that an outcome is probable. Hope, in contrast, does not indicate that an outcome is likely but that one believes that there is some possibility of a desired outcome.”
The first step to building hope is to imagine the future that you want to see. Start with things within your realm of influence — imagine biking to work instead of driving, or attending meetings of a local environmental organization.
The next thing to do is figure out how to get from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. The better your plan, the more hopeful you will be about your chances of accomplishing your goal. It helps to not just trace a single path from A to B, but imagine multiple possibilities and contingencies. Think about which obstacles you expect to face, and come up with a specific plan to overcome each one.
It should surprise no one that the more hopeful you feel about a particular situation, the easier it is to achieve a good outcome. One recent study found that telling people that small actions to conserve energy around the house make a difference leads to them actually changing behaviors and really saving energy.
Climate change is a global problem, which can make it feel overwhelming and intractable. But the flip side of that is that literally everyone on this planet has it within their power to make a tangible difference. And if each of us can imagine a future where we do a little bit better to reduce our environmental impacts, then together we can imagine a world where we all do better, together.