Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shared Passion

I believe that one of the greatest joys in life is discovering others who share the same passion and vision that we do. These discoveries often occur when we least expect it; the serendipity of life's journey never ceases to amaze.

Yesterday, I discovered that Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies held an invitation-only conference in October, 2007 to address questions around the issue of environmental sustainability and humanity's moral and cultural disconnect with the health of the living system on which we are all dependent. Fifty-seven leading thinkers from diverse fields participated in the conference. Among them, were Paul Hawken, Theodore Roosevelt IV, Juliet Schor, Tim Kasser, James Gustave Speth, Stephen Kellert, and Duane Elgin. It is my opinion that the issues and questions explored by the participants may be the most important ever addressed by the human race.

The outcome of the three-day conference, held in Aspen, Colorado, was a publication (available at entitled Toward a New Consciousness: Values to Sustain Human and Natural Communities. I have not yet read the full report. Even so, I am so inspired by what I have discovered so far that I could not wait to share it. I think Stephen Kellert brilliantly describes the scope of the conference in the Afterword. He writes:

"We need to address the roots of our predicament – an adversarial relation to the natural world – and find a way to shift our core values and worldviews not just toward the task of sustainability, but toward a society with a meaningful and fulfilling relationship with the creation. In striving for harmony with nature, we need to seek not just a more physically secure and prosperous society, but one marked
as well by moral and spiritual wellbeing.

Despite the dominance until now of a value system that has encouraged environmental degradation and alienation from nature, we are now coming to appreciate that an impoverished biotic system is not only a threat to our physical security, but also to our fullest potential for fulfillment and happiness.

We may be at a proverbial tipping point where modern society aspires not just for economic sustainability, but for harmony and grace that can only be engendered by a richer and more celebratory relation to creation. The moment is at hand for us to serve as an instrument for noteworthy and enduring change".

Now that is beautiful music to my most passionate ears!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Sustainable Consumption - Our Only Hope for Immortality

Break it down again
No more sleepy dreaming
No more building up
It is time to dissolve – Roland Orzabal

Mankind has always been motivated to create something larger than itself, to seek immortality, and to leave a legacy. The Egyptian pharaohs are a perfect example. The pyramids have lasted thousands of years and will last for many more centuries. Today, we are awed by the majesty of these monuments. Hundreds of our most intelligent brothers and sisters have and will become Egyptologists. Millions of our brethren visit these monuments annually. Most visitors report that the experience of being there is like nothing else that they have experienced in their life. The emotion of elevation is felt by most who visit. The same things can be said about the Great Wall of China, the Roman Coliseum, Versailles, the Taj Mahal, and many other great monuments.

Not only do most of these monuments that honor the capacity of human ambition, creativity, and industry represent times of tremendous inequality among humans (masters and slaves). But they represent moments in time when humans had little or no consideration for the impacts that these massive constructions had on the environment. If anything, they were planned and produced in spite of the environment – they were not only representations of man’s capacity for greatness, they represent man’s dominance and control over the land and the other creatures with whom they share the Earth.

We are impressed by what we have built. We travel the world to experience firsthand the magnificence of our creations. We are perhaps moderately saddened but the number of slaves who lost their lives during the construction of the pyramids. But we rarely feel remorse or embarrassment about the environmental effects that such constructions would have had.

This is one of many components of the human condition that works against a sustainable future. Man’s instinct for a legacy works counter to having a small footprint on the Earth. Having little impact (either physically or figuratively) requires tremendous humility. Most of us are not that strong. We prefer that our constructions be viewable from outer space just in case trans-universal visitors happen across our mostly blue planet.

Much of what we build is symbolic; symbolic of our strength, our courage, and our industriousness. These symbols also play to our needs, desires, identities, and our pursuit of meaning. For many, a small environmental footprint symbolizes a life of little meaning or significance. Though most of us will leave little or no legacy whatever, we feel a deeply rooted hope for something much more. Playing down our lives is counterintuitive for us. We can feel pride for limiting the environmental impacts of our lives. But it is a pride in the sense of martyrdom - paying the ultimate price for doing our part to lengthen the life of the Earth, and to improve the lives of those who follow us.

What can be done? How can we get past this innate striving for something greater than ourselves? How can we alter this innate force to guarantee our survival? If this nut can be cracked, then there is hope for a sustainable future. If we do not crack this nut, we (and all of the other living things on the Earth) are likely doomed. What we are talking about here are the psychological forces within us. I propose that these forces hold the key to a sustainable future. Without unlocking the beliefs and emotions that are causing our inevitable destruction, we are fooling ourselves.

For sure, there is a vibrant sustainability movement afoot in the world. Programs such as “An Inconvenient Truth” have had significant impacts. These impacts have been, for the most part, rooted in awareness. We are learning that our actions are damaging our only home in the universe. We are recognizing the reality of the situation. We see it. But do we own it?

Some people own it. They are working toward a sustainable future through everyday actions and organizational involvement. They are affecting change wherever they can. So far, most of this work has been persuasive in nature. The solutions, up to this point, have been predominantly technical. How do we separate the items in our trash for recycling? How do we reduce our CO2 emissions? How do we convince others to change their habits? What laws can be passed to limit pollution? These actions have been effective. There is clearly a ground-swell of support for much of what is being done.

I argue that these actions are a good first step, but we need to take things to the next level. We need to tap the minds of our greatest thinkers in psychology, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, and other disciplines focused on the human psyche in order to beat a path to the door that leads to our ultimate survival. The irony is that, if immortality is what we truly seek as a species, then only sustainable living will get us there. The old ways of building great monuments to represent our immortality must come to an end. In a sense we need to deconstruct for our survival. We need to deconstruct our physical environments. And, more importantly, we need to deconstruct our minds. If we can identify those emotional levers that will direct our behaviors to be more sustainable, then we can start working those levers in ways that provide for more sustainable living.

It has taken us thousands of years to recognize that our activities are harming the environment. It will likely take us hundreds more to be able to change our minds about what is important, and have that change be in perfect alignment with our beliefs and emotions. This is a problem that will require much more than technical solutions. The great pyramids were built using technical solutions. But the inspiration and reasons for their construction are found in all of us – our deeply held beliefs and emotions. In the same way, sustainable living will require more than just technical solutions. We will need to get to the sources of our inspiration and meaning before we will be successful.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Tyranny of Disharmony

Today's post is from the Zen Master Santee Poromaa (top row, second from left), and captures an interesting perspective of the predicament that many of us find ourselves in today - the feeling that something is not quite right.

Hedonism is the answer to the question how to live life “to its fullest degree”, to search for pleasure and avoid discomfort. To do only what pleases us and in that way fill our lives with maximal pleasure. Hedonism today lives as the ruling religion in our secularized societies. Just as before, hedonists today seek to shape their life and spend their time so that each moment will be as comfortable, pleasurable and joyful as possible. Since we no longer believe in higher powers and a predetermined world there is not much left but to enjoy each moment as if it was the last.

But the difference between the hedonist of the past and those of today is worth reflecting upon. The image of a hedonist in ancient Greece is perhaps the one of a person, laying on a daybed, sipping a good wine and listening to divine music. The hedonist of today however, has not time for that. He’s rushing ahead in a fast car, listening to his MP3 player while talking on his cell phone. Today we’ve convinced ourselves that the more we can fit into the moment, the more meaningful it becomes. Our simultaneous capacity is stretched to its fullest and in our inner sphere numerous different voices now live, fighting for space. We want to do so much, see so many things, live so much more. SMS, MMS, Java, Bluetooth, DVD and MP4. They’re all fighting for a place in our inner sphere, now known as Our inner sphere, the place where we are free and present, lucid and attentive, has been occupied by demons fighting a war for our attention. Most of these demons come from the special hell known as the Market.

The truth is that modern life demands a lot more from us than we have time for. The only solution is to do many things at once, to pay attention to many different voices at the same time. The effect of this “multitasking” is a sense of disharmony, or what the writer Saul Bellow described as “an unbearable state of distraction”. This state of disharmony is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of our time. The feeling of having too many forces fighting for our attention and demanding something of us is causing more and more of us to live with a constant feeling of not “having enough time” - as if everything was going faster and faster. The paradoxical effect of trying to fit more life into each moment is that we never seem to be quite in it ourselves; the moment we want to enjoy is the place and time where we are not. “Life is what happens while making other plans”, John Lennon sang. Life goes on while we are someplace else.

At the same time this extreme disruption has had another effect as well. It has made us bored. We can’t stand long pieces of music anymore, but prefer classical favorites in short version. While watching films from the fifties and sixties we feel an almost subconscious urge to fast forward through the “dead time”. Impatience and a disability to do nothing is the result. We all, compared to older generations, suffer from attention disorders. In other words, we have become addicted to our own simultaneous capacity and constantly demand new impressions, just as a junkie needs his fix. In the fifties, before television, an entire family could sit at home and listen to the radio. Just listen. Without cleaning or talking on the phone or play video games at the same time. Just sit silently and listen.

Nowadays we rarely give something our full attention. We may give the radio twenty or thirty percent, hardly more. It is more and more common that we call someone to talk and hear how the person on the other line is simultaneously tapping on their keyboard, perhaps answering mails or just surfing. Radio producers today are of course aware of this disharmony and no longer communicate with us as adults - intelligent and independent individuals. Instead they’re fooling around and being silly, preferably as loud as possible since they know that that is the only way to catch at least a fragment of our attention.

Conclusively one can say that our modern hedonism and shopping frenzy has given our lives, not more life, but these side effects: we have become disharmonious and stressed. We have lost touch with our inner clarity. We have lost our ability to concentrate and are easily bored. We’re practically never completely present. And the things that are supposed to entertain and feed our minds - books, theatre, music, movies have become shallower and louder, less serious. The finer shades of life have been lost. Our inner, mental room has been sold to the market forces. The consumption demons run our lives. We are the losers.

Zen masters have a completely different idea of how to live life. In Zen we admit that the moment is all we have. To a Zen master the present isn’t a piece of time in between the past and the future - there to be filled with as many “experiences” as possible. It is instead “an eternal spring”, an infinite place outside of what we call time and space. Release from sufferance and dissatisfaction is, according to this ancient wisdom, about learning how to live consciously. To live consciously is to live now. Not by filling the moment with more but by being completely present. Not to constantly divide our minds and chase after only that which gives us pleasure, but learning how to find pleasure in what one does. In the future it is therefore likely that more and more people willingly will give up shopping, choose to live simply, or, at least, avoid the excess. Not because of an ascetic wish for self-sufferance, but from realizing that happiness cannot be bought. – Santee Poromaa

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Capstone Prelude, Part 2

My MAPP capstone paper has been submitted for publication. Hopefully, it will be accepted. Until then, here is the second (more inspiring) part of the Prelude:

Despite her illness, she continues to evolve, transform, and grow. It is the time for her to change – for the better. She knows that it is not a coincidence that, at the exact point in time when her illness is becoming critical, her thinking and feeling is blossoming. She senses that some profound truth is about to rise to the surface of her consciousness. Now, after billions of years of life she is having an epiphany; she now knows that she possesses the tools necessary to save her precious life. The way that she and her children will overcome illness, transform life, and flourish, is through the magnificent power of positive emotions.

· She has TRUST – for it is the glue that will keep all of her living parts working together in harmony.

· She has HOPE – for she knows that hope is the driver that will get her beyond her current state of illness and to a more positive and healthful destiny.

· She has JOY – for it is the energy that will flow as she heals and transforms herself to vitality and health. She also knows that joy will continue to be available to her throughout her journey.

· She experiences AWE – for she knows of her own excellence and beauty and it inspires her. She is also in awe of the universe. She is but a small part of something much greater, and that gives her life meaning.

· She feels FORGIVENESS – for she knows that forgiving the behaviors that have caused her illness will guide her now and forever because there will always be some bad that goes along with the good.

· She is GRATEFUL – for it motivates her to see things through to a flourishing life. There is so much to be thankful for. Many of her friends throughout the vast universe are without life. She will never let her life end - it is too rare and precious.

· She feels COMPASSION - for it will provide her with the power of knowing that she is intrinsically good despite the mistakes she has made along the way.

· And, she feels LOVE – for it is the sharing of love for which all else is done.

The future is opening up to her – it is opening up and expanding in a most positive way. She is seeing beyond her current state of illness to an existence that is full of happiness, meaning, engagement, and good health. As in her long and tumultuous past, despite the current challenges, she will overcome, transform, and flourish. It is her destiny and she knows it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fear & Hope

Watching the current debate on health care reform has been interesting, to say the least. The battle is a psychological classic - will our most primal negative emotion of fear overwhelm the progressive power of the transcendent positive emotion of hope? Right now, it looks like fear is (once again) winning.

Psychologists have known for quite some time that "bad is stronger than good". What this means is that negative emotions are much more salient than positive emotions. They also result in powerful physiological reactions. Fear, for example, causes cardiovascular reactivity, which increases blood flow to the large muscles allowing us to maximize our capacity to escape imminent danger. If only those feeling the most fearful at town hall meetings would run out of the room as fast as they can!

What's more important for the healthful evolution of human society is that negative emotions narrow our attention and limit our focus to the short-term. This is important for escaping predators, but is a terrible motivator for inspired societal change.

The survival value of positive emotions, on the other hand, is in the potential for the future. They literally broaden our capacity to envision a better future for ourselves - that is their ultimate purpose. Now, more than ever, we need positive emotions, such as hope, to guide us toward a more healthful future. The more the powerful emotion of fear guides our policy, the more short-sighted and less inspired this policy will be.

It looks likely that fear will overcome this time around. Ultimately, we must draw on the creative and transformative powers of positive emotions, in spite of fear, to authentically open up to the possibilities that exist to expand human flourishing.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Capstone Accepted!

I am very pleased to announce that my capstone (thesis) paper, the culmination of my master's degree program at Penn, has been officially accepted by the university.

My capstone project, entitled "Cultivated Positive Emotions Inspire Environmentally Responsible Behaviors", will hopefully be published soon. Below is a teaser for your enjoyment:

From space, she looks just as she has for millennia. The depth of her blue is still beyond description. The complex swirling white patterns rising above the blue give the impression of both profound energy and staggering beauty. She appears as the embodiment of peace. What cannot be seen from space, however, is that she is sick - very sick. No one would ever know it from how absolutely stunning she looks from way up here. Not only is she very sick, but she is getting sicker every day. Her illness is not the result of some extraterrestrial menace. Her health is fading because of her own behavior – the activities of those for whom she is home. These harmful activities are making it difficult for her to flourish.

Her blood feels thick and heavy, making her lethargic. She is constantly stressed and anxious. The bad weather that she carries around with her all the time is really starting to affect her. She is finding it more and more difficult each revolution around the sun to shake the storm clouds that shroud her thoughts and emotions. After each daily rotation, it is harder for her to see and think clearly. Mother Earth is depressed and dismayed.

She knows that something needs to be done. For the past several hundred years, the behaviors of her children have been destructive. Deep down, she knows that these destructive ways can no longer continue. Unlike her children, however, her memory spans thousands of millennia. She personally identifies with all that has gone before, and she knows that those who now dominate her vast surface are a formidable foe. Though she recognizes that some treatment of her symptoms is important and necessary, just fixing what is wrong with her will not be enough to cure her. Like all living things eventually do, she has reached a critical point in her life.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Thing of Beauty!

I know, I know, I promised that this blog (this time around) would be more fun and uplifting. Well, I just could not resist posting these absolutely delightful lyrics from Joni Mitchell - delightful in the sense that they perfectly capture the cruelty of big business and the market economy.

All around the marketplace, the buzzing of the flies
The buzzing and the stinging
Divinely barren and wickedly wise
The killer nails are ringing
Enter the multitudes
In Exxon blue
In radiation rose
Tragedy, now you tell me
Who you gonna get to do your dirty work when the slaves are free?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Real Happiness Is Back!

After two-and-a-half years, a career change, and a master's degree, Real-Happiness is back! The time has come (again) to share ideas, research findings, and theories about living happier in spite of consumer culture.

One thing that is somewhat different from the earlier blog is that the bent will be more "green". Much has changed in the world over the past three years. One of the most profound changes is how our culture is finally starting to recognize the real benefits of living more simply and sustainably.

I'm also expecting that the "new" Real-Happiness blog will be more fun and uplifting. Please share and enjoy!