Since my book Raising Happiness was published, I’ve met so many unhappy parents I’ve come to believe there might just be an epidemic of unhappiness in them—especially in the parents of young children. While there probably isn’t an epidemic of depression in parents, I’m pretty sure there IS an epidemic of busyness. Do this little thought experiment with me: imagine that you have some free time—a whole afternoon to yourself. Do you take that time to take a nap and read a good book? To work? To play with a friend? Do you catch up on the laundry, and then take your kids to that newish trampoline place they’ve been begging to go? This short video makes the case for NOT always spending more time with your kids.
Last Saturday night at a birthday soiree, I got to sit across from one of UC Berkeley’s cutting edge ocean researchers. I asked him to explain to me how climate change is affecting fish populations, and he responded by saying that “climate change is happening too slowly.” He lamented that while it is true that marine life as we know it will effectively be “dead by 2050,” the die-outs are happening too gradually for most folks to care enough to change.
Uh, I don’t know about you, but 2050 doesn’t seem that far away. That doesn’t seem like slow change to me; it seems dramatic, and tragic.
This really lit a fire under my SUV-driving, tuna-eating self*. But seeing an oncoming train and actually stopping it are two entirely different matters. I could list a hundred—no, a thousand—small things that we could all do today to stop the climate change train-wreck from happening. But will we actually do them?
For most of us, changing our habits—reducing our reliance on disposable water-bottles, for example—is a lot like intending to lose weight or exercise more. We may have a very strong desire to be thinner, or a deep conviction to hit the gym regularly, but most people don’t actually succeed in eating less or working out more often over the long term.
Why is it so hard to change, despite our good intentions?
Because change takes willpower, and our willpower is limited. Our brains are more or less hard-wired in a way that makes it difficult to change our wasteful ways.
Thankfully, research has been shedding light on many of the brain mechanisms that tend to foil us, so we CAN outsmart our brains. Here’s how.
1. Beware of moral licensing. Moral licensing occurs when we behave virtuously and then “cancel out” our good deeds by doing something naughty. When we behave in-line with our goals and values—whether it’s as large as trading in our truck for a Prius or as small as not taking a plastic bag at the grocery store—ironically, we risk back-sliding.
Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to feel that healthy or virtuous activities entitle us to partake in less-good (for us or for the earth) activities. Smokers will smoke more, for example, when they believe they’ve just taken a Vitamin C pill. Similarly, philanthropists tend to give away less money after they’ve been reminded of their humanitarian attributes. One study even found that after people buy eco-friendly products, they’re more likely to cheat and steal! (New research suggests that some of us are more prone to moral licensing than others. My GGSC colleague Emiliana Simon-Thomas explains here.)
Instead of giving yourself a pat on the back for your own good behavior, avoid the “licensing effect” by reflecting on your goals and values rather than your accomplishment. Why did you ride your bike instead of drive? What larger mission are you trying to fulfill? Questions like these can help us stay focused on what we are trying to achieve instead of sabotaging our own efforts.
2. Structure your environment to minimize the number of decisions you need to make. Every little decision we make takes a little out of our willpower reserve. Low willpower means that you are likely to do what is familiar rather than something more earth-saving.
Outsmart this brain boobie-trap three ways: First, pre-decide as much as you possibly can (where you will go, how you will get there, what you’ll bring with you, etc.). So instead of deciding whether to drive or walk to work in the morning right before you leave, commit to the decision to walk the night before.
Second, and this is the critical part: Structure your environment to support your decision. Put your work shoes deep in your backpack and your walking shoes by the door. Knowing that you are going to be tempted to drive, put your car keys in an inconvenient place you won’t want to venture to the morning. (Have access to a dusty attic? That’d be perfect.)
Finally, make a specific plan for what you will do when challenges arise (and they will). If you wake up to find it raining, pre-decide that you’ll wear your blue rain jacket and take that huge golf umbrella your dad left in the closet. If you wake up late, pre-decide that you’ll ride your bike instead of drive. Etc.
3. Reduce your stress. To boost follow-through on our good intentions, we need to relax. When we are stressed, our brains (kindly) try to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. A dopamine rush makes temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item… like that easy taxi to work rather than the less-than-comforting subway commute.
As Kelly McGonigal writes, “Stress points us in the wrong direction, away from clear-headed wisdom toward our least-helpful instincts.” When we’re relaxed, we’ll choose the locally grown organic apple. When we’re stressed? Personally, I have a weakness for chips and queso.
The takeaway: Sometimes the best thing that we can do for the environment is reduce our own stress. Read this post for more stress-reduction tips.
Want more tips for how to make a change this Earth Day? Post the earth-saving habit change that you’d like to make by April 22nd at midnight in the comments below (I can see your email address, but no one else can), and I’ll enroll you in my 21-Day “Cracking the Habit Code” online class for free!
You, with your switching sides,
And your walk by lies and your humiliation
You, have pointed out my flaws again,
As if I don’t already see them.
I walk with my head down,
Trying to block you out cause I’ll never impress you….
—Taylor Swift, “Mean”
“Why you gotta be so meeaann?” Taylor Swift croons in my car, accompanied rather loudly by five kids who are singing their hearts out. The song resonates with me, too, so much so that I find myself madly rummaging through my purse for my sunglasses, not wanting the carpool to see me choked up.
(Honestly, I’m not sure why I cry when I hear that song. I think I’m moved because it tells of a kid succeeding despite difficulty. If you haven’t heard it, listen here. I particularly like the end of this version.)
Anyway, one of the girls in my car (let’s call her Sally) has just revealed that she was once again the butt of a mean comment in PE. Everyone in the car feels her pain; unfortunately we’ve all been there.
Most of us use avoidance as our chief strategy for dealing with unkindness, steering clear of the mean person at all costs. But this strategy is neither practical nor effective, as it is often impossible to avoid a person completely and usually leaves us cowering in fear.
Fortunately, there is a better approach. From research on social and emotional well-being, here’s what I’ve learned about how to cope when someone gets nasty.
First, remember that you can control your response when someone does or says something mean. We may not be able to control much about our life circumstances, but with practice we can control how we respond to those circumstances.
I once got a horrible voicemail from a neighbor. In it, she called me a fraud and my blog a joke, and told me to stay away from her children. Though she seemed high-functioning to the outside world, she seemed pretty unstable to me.
My instinct was to fight back—to expose her craziness to the world, to tell everyone how insanely mean she was.
Sally had the opposite instinct around the girl who teased her in PE. She let this particular mean girl boss her around, hoping against hope that she would eventually relent.
Neither of these responses—attacking back or becoming a spineless doormat—are constructive ways to cope. The most effective response to meanness is compassion. Where there is meanness, there is often a lot of pain, both in the unkind person and for the person on the receiving end of a mean joke, comment, or email.
Take care of your own pain first. When I got the crazy-neighbor voicemail, I was shocked, and hurt (I cared what she thought of me), and, frankly, scared. Researcher Brene Brown, in her fantastic book Daring Greatly, advocates a response to a situation like this that I’ve been using instinctively since I was a kid: Before you attack back, let yourself feel what is going on. You can simply repeat to yourself, “Pain, pain, pain,” and breathe. Sometimes I have to say it out loud.
The key is not to deny what we are feeling, but rather to accept it. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate your emotions: This embarrassment is excruciating. I am so frightened right now. Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.
Often we don’t want to admit we are hurt by another person’s meanness; we want to let it go without letting it get to us. If you can do this, more power to you. But if you can’t, that’s okay, too. You will survive the discomfort of your hurt feelings. It is perfectly normal to feel bad when someone wounds you.
Once you practice this sort of self-compassion, take the next step: See mean people for what they really are—wounded and tiny and probably threatened. Frightened mice masquerading as roaring lions. When I suggested to Sally that her unkind classmate was probably insecure or threatened by her, Sally insisted that just the opposite was true. “She’s the most confident person I know!” The other kids in the car agreed.
But then I had them recall the last time each of them was a little mean to a classmate or sibling. How did you feel right before you did it? The unanimous answer: They felt small, or frustrated, or humiliated, so they did something that might make them feel big or important or powerful. We began to imagine what might have made Sally’s mean-girl feel threatened or small, and the kids came up with a dozen possibilities.
Finally, fight fire with water by sending loving thoughts to the people who hurt you. This is an advanced technique, but I can almost promise that it will make you feel better. I use a traditional loving-kindness meditation, and say things like “May you be happy. May you be healthy and strong. May you be free from suffering” while imagining the person who tried to hurt me.
When we send well-wishes to the hurting people who want us to share their pain, we are able to rise above their suffering. We regain our true power.
After all, it is only when mean people actually are happy and free from suffering that they will stop trying to take us down with them.
I’m Christine Carter, Ph.D, a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. This blog is mostly science-based parenting advice: since I’m reading all the research related to raising happy children anyway, I thought we might as well make it useable to parents. My intention is to bring a scientific framing (what does the research actually say?) to our opinion-based parenting debates and advice. Sorting fact from fiction can be confusing when it comes to parenting.
This blog is also about me and my children. It represents the intersection of my brain and my heart: my intellectual training in the social sciences and my very real, sometimes raw, experiences as a mother.