Can you still find joy when it feels like the world is ending?
When I was a kid, and I’d get upset about something like a doll I wanted that my parents wouldn’t buy or another kid taking the last cookie, it was common to hear the following words: “Well, it’s not like the world is ending.”
Hearing those words as a child made me feel ashamed. How could I be so preoccupied with a cookie when I was lucky to live in a world that was safe and stable? While this phrase attempts to put a child’s distress in context, it also minimizes their emotions by implying their loss is small or trivial. Yet now, as a parent, I feel strangely wistful about those words. I wouldn’t say them to my child, because I think it’s important to acknowledge disappointment, rather than dismiss it. But I also couldn’t say them to my child, because they no longer feel quite true.
With the latest IPCC climate report showing that we will likely exceed 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming within the next two decades and the ever-increasing parade of catastrophic wildfires, storms, and floods happening around the globe, it’s clear we are entering a critical and dangerous period for life on Earth. Add to this the growing threats of political extremism, wealth inequality, and the continuing toll of the pandemic, and it makes it hard, especially for young people, to imagine a future that resembles our carefree past.
The world itself may not be ending — and many of us hold out hope that we can build something still better from the crumbling of old, unjust, and unsustainable structures — but the world as we knew it is already gone, and the world we are coming to inhabit is still very much a question mark. As the meme goes, “I’m tired of living in unprecedented times. I’d like to live in precedented times now.” Unfortunately, that option isn’t on the table anymore.
Feelings like this are no longer a niche concern. In a 2020 poll by the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of respondents expressed anxiety about the effects of climate change on their own mental health. These fears are particularly prevalent among young people, who are likely to experience more loss and uncertainty due to the climate crisis. Psychologists have coined the term eco-anxiety to describe persistent worries about environmental destruction, and the new field of eco-therapy has developed to give therapists better tools for helping people cope with the consequences of ecological destruction. Still, with the multitude of crises we’re facing and the speed at which they’re unfolding, filtered through a 24-hour news cycle and a social media ecosystem that amplifies rage and antagonism, there is little doubt that we are just beginning to understand the implications for our mental well-being.
How are we supposed to live in these unprecedented times? How do we manage the anxiety and stress of living in a world we feel is teetering on the brink of calamity, while also juggling the very real struggles and worries we face in our own personal lives? And can we (and should we) still find joy in the midst of it all?
Why joy matters
When in the grip of fear or grief, joy often feels inaccessible. It can feel selfish to allow ourselves to feel joy when others are suffering. It can feel like we’re being callous, like we lack empathy. We may worry we’re being frivolous or self-indulgent, having fun while the world burns.
But feeling joy is different than pretending nothing’s wrong. And in world where anxiety is a fixture, not an anomaly, joy is essential to our survival.
In a favorite poem of mine, A Brief for the Defense, Jack Gilbert writes:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
The first lines of the excerpt are oft-quoted, but it’s these last lines that I think about again and again. It’s taken me a long time to learn that denying ourselves joy doesn’t lessen the suffering of others. And it diminishes the value of life when we reject joy and focus exclusively on the world’s pain. Life becomes solely an exercise of mitigating harm, and what kind of life is that? What kind of life can we have without joy?
There are also practical reasons to embrace joy. Positive emotions provide relief from stress, allowing our bodies and minds a moment to recover. They broaden our mindset, breaking us out of gloom-and-doom cycles of rumination and helping us gain new perspective. Research by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson (among others) suggests that feeling joy during a stressful time actually “undoes” the negative cardiovascular effects of stress on the body, and that people who experience positive emotions amid adversity cope better and are more resilient in the face of future problems.
Instead of an escape or a diversion, I think it’s more helpful to view joy as a channel toward love, and toward hope. When we allow ourselves to experience the joy of the world around us, we become attached and invested. My own awakening to the need for change in our treatment of our environment happened when I learned to SCUBA dive. Floating with these magnificent creatures in their candy-colored world, I could no longer feel indifferent to their experience. I became drawn to learning more about the effects of climate change on the oceans and how to protect them. I was invested.
If wallowing in the news makes us frozen and afraid, affection and hope are more likely to inspire action. Edward Maibach, a communication scientist at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, says, “Our research also shows the importance of hope. People who are more hopeful that we can make a difference in addressing climate change are much more likely to take helpful actions than people who have less hope.”
Rather than avoiding our anxiety and feeling guilty about our joy, we are better off holding both together. Here are a few thoughts about how to do this.
Celebrate what you love
So many of the stories of the climate crisis are stories of loss and devastation. We need stories like this to help us understand the scope of the problem, but we also need reminders of why we care so much in the first place. It’s not just that Earth provides the essentials for our survival, but also that it gives rise to so much joy. Reveling in that joy, sharing it, and celebrating it are ways of increasing our intimacy with the Earth, and deepening our commitment to helping to sustain it.
When was the last time you reveled in the joy of the earth? The earliest festivals celebrated nature’s cycles, keeping people in tune with the rhythms of the world around them. You can celebrate the Earth with a bouquet of flowers from your garden, or a peach pie made from summer’s glut. You can celebrate it by watching a David Attenborough documentary. You can celebrate it in a quiet reverie watching terns fish in the shallows at the beach, or by gathering with friends among the trees, or by making art with nature’s colors. Your celebration can be raucous and wild, or it can be peaceful and reflective.
This principle also applies to other issues, not just environmental ones. If you are fighting for justice for a marginalized group of people, how can you celebrate their culture, not just their struggle? If you are campaigning to end gun violence in schools, how are you celebrating what peace looks and feels like?
Celebration reminds us of the joyful future we seek to build. When we’re so steeped in anguish that activism begins to feel like a burden, celebration reminds us that responsibility can also be a joy.
Grieve what you’ve lost
Climate change entails loss, but when we think about these losses, we often think about them in a global context. We see island nations in danger of being submerged, towns buried under mud, koalas singed by fire, and it can feel a bit like a remote tragedy. But in many ways the losses are personal, even if in some of our lives they are still quite subtle. This summer was the first time I noticed air quality being at unsafe levels on the East Coast due to wildfires in the West. The loss of the ability to take Graham for a walk without having to check the Air Quality Index (AQI) is small compared to the losses of habitats or homelands. But it’s still a loss, and there will be more like it in the years to come.
Dr. Ashlee Consulo, founding dean of the School of Arctic and Subarctic Studies at the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, talks about how “climate change is bringing up what philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls solastalgia, where people are in place and in their home community, but it no longer looks or feels like home. So there’s a sense of homesickness without actually having to leave.” We sense that something is wrong, but we don’t have a way to talk about it and process this sadness. For this reason, many of us may not yet realize that we need to grieve.
Grief reminds us of how much we cared about what we lost. Just as we might grieve any other loss, we need to mourn the losses of the climate crisis so that we can move through the grief, rather than going numb. One of the things I’ve noticed about how we process eco-anxiety is that we don’t really let ourselves do this. Maybe it’s because the harms are human-caused, and so on some level we see ourselves as perpetrators, rather than the bereaved. Our guilt gets in the way of our grief.
Creating space to let ourselves grieve and acknowledge what we’ve lost can help create space for resilience as we approach our new reality, and optimism that we can still find joy in the future.
Set reasonable boundaries
When faced with impending disaster, a natural impulse is to try to stay informed. But with the intense imagery featured in the news right now, staying informed can mean subjecting ourselves to large doses of horrifying content. Even a quick scan of the headlines can easily spiral into doomscrolling, where we feel glued to the screen as each headline stokes our anxiety further and further.
To avoid doomscrolling, some people tune out from the news entirely. But this entails a kind of privilege that not everyone can afford. Those who live in hard-hit regions can’t just tune out the news, and as the impacts of the climate emergency become more widespread, no one will be able to fully detach.
Instead of tuning out, a more sustainable solution is to set boundaries around our media consumption. Set time limits on your news reading or watching, or commit to reading one meaningful story a day instead of a slew of dire headlines. Or, choose specific sources from which to get your news (lately I’ve been appreciating Earthrise Studio for climate news, for example), and skip the hyperbolic Twitter threads. You can also tune into specific feelings you get when you consume a lot of heavy news, and identify triggers you can look for to tell you when it’s time to turn off the firehose.
Focus on communities and systems, not self
When I was researching eco-anxiety, I noticed a lot of articles recommend specific actions you can take to reduce your climate impact: going vegan, switching to a bike commute, or flying less. And while these are all helpful things to do, I think this advice can sometimes backfire. That’s because climate change is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions, not just individual ones. We’ve been made to feel a great deal of shame around climate change, and while we do bear responsibility, the systems we are a part of make meaningful change difficult. As author and activist Emma Maris has said: “The systems in which we are all enmeshed essentially force us to harm the planet, and yet we put all that shame on our own shoulders. The shame is not helping anybody.”
The truth, as published in a 2017 report, is that 100 energy companies have been responsible for 71 percent of all manmade carbon emissions to date. Energy companies have concealed their own scientific research about warming from the public and lobbied to advance climate denialism and block efforts to shift toward renewables. Even the most diligent adherent to sustainable living can’t counter these effects with their own individual choices.
When we focus solely on individual action, yet see little progress globally, it can lead to frustration (“What’s the point of all this anyway?”) and resentment (“Why am I making all these sacrifices when my neighbors won’t even recycle?”). But when we focus on systems and communities, our impact begins to scale and we get to feel the joy of shared activism and momentum. In particular, it’s essential to support indigenous communities who have been doing the work of stewardship of the land and fighting new fossil fuel extraction projects for generations.
Being among like minds can give us energy and inspire us to act in new and different ways. It combats our sense of powerlessness, and can even be a form of celebration.
Align your life with your values
This isn’t to suggest that individual actions don’t have value. Altering your consumption habits helps support companies doing business in more sustainable ways and pressures others to alter their practices. Moving your money away from banks that fund oil companies helps create public pressure to defund fossil fuel projects. But perhaps the most important effect of these small actions is that it helps create congruence between our lives and our values.
When we value the Earth but feel ourselves acting in ways that are harmful, it creates a kind of dissonance that increases our anxiety. We see ourselves as part of the problem, and it makes us feel more guilty and more hopeless. Taking small actions to align our lifestyles with our values around big issues creates congruence, which in turn makes us feel more empowered and more committed to the broader project of making change.
The key is to focus on the action, not the outcome. We change our diets, alter our spending, and shift our commute not because we believe it will “solve” climate change, but because we believe it’s important to be a part of the solution. It’s a physical demonstration of what matters most to us. And what could be more joyful than that?
Ultimately, we don’t get to choose the times we live in. But I believe strongly that rather than dwelling in one extreme or another — despair or blithe ignorance — we thrive when we are able to accept the intensity of both our heartache and our gratitude for all we still have, and all we can still create.
Have you found ways of finding joy amid the stress of the news cycle? Please share your tips in the comments.