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How can we build a sense of hope when the future feels uncertain? Poet Tomás Morín tries a writing practice to make him feel more hopeful and motivated to work toward his goals.
This is the second episode of our special series, Climate, Hope & Science. We explore the intersection of environmental well-being and our own well-being, where taking care of ourselves and the planet are one in the same and feeling good is not only possible, it’s helpful. We find the links between crisis, hope, happiness, and action.
Look for the third and final episode May 11. Plus, we’ll share climate-focused Happiness Breaks next week and May 18.
In the first episode of Climate, Hope & Science, we explored the power of hope with Rebecca Solnitt. Hope can help us cope with uncertainty and sustain action, even when we don’t know what will happen. But what can we do when hope feels far away? This week, we learn about a practice shown in a lab to increase hopefulness and happiness. Poet and professor Tomá Morín got his first taste of climate anxiety as a kid, when he learned about the hole in the ozone layer, and he still feels the panic over the state of the environment today. Will writing about a past hope that was fulfilled — like the global effort to heal the ozone layer — help him overcome despair and cultivate hope? We hear about Tomás’ experience. Then, the scientist behind the practice explains how she created it and why it works.
Editor’s Note: In this episode, Tomás mentions recycling as a way to care for the environment. But in the last few years, we’ve learned that most things we toss in the recycling bin are never made into something new. If you’d like to learn more, here are a few places to start:
Find a quiet space and grab paper and something to write with.
Write about something you’re currently hopeful for. Describe it as if it’s happening now in as much detail as possible. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar.
Next, write about a past hope you’ve held regarding the environment that’s been fulfilled and that brings you a sense of gratitude to think about now. Describe what happened and the gratitude you felt for all the things and people that led up to it. Then, write about how you contributed to the fulfillment of that hope, how others contributed to it, how your strengths and virtues grew through it, and what you learned from the experience. If you like, take these prompts one by one. Don’t worry about writing well, just write as much as you can.
Tomás Morin is a poet who won an American Poetry Review Honickman First Book Prize for his collection of poems A Larger Country. He’s currently a professor at Rice University.
Check out Tomás’ work: https://www.tomasqmorin.com/About
Read some of Tomás’ poems: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/tomas-q-morin
Read Tomás’ latest book: https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9781496226495/
Follow Tomas on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tomasqmorin/
Charlotte Van Oyen-Witvliet is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
Learn more about Charlotte’s work: https://hope.edu/directory/people/vanoyen-witvliet-charlotte/index.html
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
How Hope Can Keep You Happier and Healthier: https://tinyurl.com/2n9k59xn
How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times: https://tinyurl.com/3b66kh5n
How to Overcome “Apocalypse Fatigue” Around Climate Change: https://tinyurl.com/yc47ph38
What to do With Dread and Anxiety Around Climate Change: https://tinyurl.com/3766a6sj
Tell us about your experience finding hope for the environment. Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Leave us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts and share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/2p9h5aap
Tomàs: It’s so easy to just, you know, you watch the news or you doom scroll, you know, on social media and the algorithm keeps feeding you all the, all the worst things. And it’s so easy to feel alone and hopeless. As a kid when I learned about the hole in the ozone layer. I mean, what a moment. It felt like, oh, suddenly we’re in some disaster film. And like, what’s going to happen? Is this the end?
CBS In The News: Ozone - 1986 Recently scientists discovered a weak stop in the ozone layer over Antarctica, the icy continent…
Tomàs: It felt like there’s this awful thing that’s happened in the sky that I can’t see, and if it doesn’t get fixed, then this is going to physically hurt us. It’s going to force us to change how we, how we live. We won’t be able to go outside anymore. So it’ll be too dangerous. That event hijacked my nervous system. It just felt too big. It felt too big for me to, I think, like, understand mentally. So instead my body carried that fear. Now when I look back, I realized that it was anxiety. And fast forward years later, I remember seeing somewhere, ‘Oh, hey, you know, we did it.’ And, and just feeling like, oh, wow. Like we as a species we’re actually capable of this
BBC NEWS: Human action to save the ozone layer appears to have worked. The study says it should recover within decades…
Tomàs: To have our nations come together, have our government pull together, our politicians come together across the aisle and, and actually come up with a plan and then implement it.. That was really, that was really huge for me.
I knew we were capable of collaborative destruction. But I didn’t know that we were capable of collaborative repair.
Dacher: I’m Dacher Keltner, Welcome to The Science of Happiness. This week we’re going to look at how we can draw hope, even when hope feels far away. It’s the second in our three-part series: Climate, Hope and Science. In our last episode we heard from author Rebecca Solnit about how hope can counter the despair so many of us feel about the environment and the destruction we’re perpetuating and how hope can actually motivate us to action. And how it might shift how we travel from one place to another or what we eat or how we consume.
Today we’re going to look at what happens when we press pause on our worries about the future, to appreciate the progress we have made. Our guest, poet Tomás Morín, tried a writing exercise shown to make us feel more hopeful about our future. The psychologist who created this practice, Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, also explains how she tested it, and why it works.
Charlotte: We can avoid this overwhelming kind of helpless despair on the one hand, but also not this sort of naive optimism that leads to presumption and passivity on the other. it can kind of keep us going, like, “what I do matters and what I decide not to do also matters.”
Dacher: More after this break. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner and this is the second episode in our special series: Climate, Hope and Science. This week we’re going to explore a writing exercise shown to make us feel more hopeful, and in turn more motivated to take action. Our guest Tomás Morín, tried this writing practice for our show. Tomás is an award-winning poet, author, and professor of creative writing at Rice University in Texas. Tomás has felt eco-anxiety since he was kid—when he learned that there was a hole in the ozone layer, and had the realization that the future of the environment isn’t certain—and it could hold real dangers. He joins us today to share how this writing practice went, and how it has affected his eco-anxiety. Tomás, welcome.
Tomàs: Thank you for having me.
Dacher:. So for our show, you did a writing practice, Tomás, and Wow, what an effect. You know, Charlotte VanOyen Wvitliet who has done research on this past fulfilled hope writing exercise finds people get more hopeful and more happy, uh, when they do it. The first step is where you write about something you’re currently hopeful for and you focused on the climate. What’d you write about?
Tomàs: I wrote about the polar ice caps. For me, when I started seeing the images of how they were melting and ever increasing melting and the polar bears and what it’s doing to the ecosystems over there, for me it felt, like a similar moment to, the hole and the ozone. Like this terror, like, oh,polar bears could become extinct as a species within my lifetime. And what does it mean to live on a planet that doesn’t have ice, you know, at either pole? And, and then everything that’s going to happen, from there in terms of rising sea levels. One of the big hopes that I have is that not just that the ice can return,but also that these places which are homes to diverse ecosystems. I want the flora and fauna that are from there and that are native from there to, you know, be able to thrive again, but also, for those places to be protected. And yeah, I just hope that we can as nations, as people,make the changes that we need in order to, you know, save our planet before it’s too late.
Dacher: In this exercise, the next steps are to write about a past hope that you had that’s been fulfilled with just a sense of gratitude. And what did you write about in terms of something you’d hoped for in the past that came true in your life?
Tomàs:, One of the things that I wrote about, when I was a kid when recycling first started, I remembered, uh, just thinking about how cool it would be to be able to recycle everything, or most everything, and not just aluminum cans. Yeah. Which I remember as kids, we would collect in order to go and sell them, you know, for a few bucks and then go buy some soda. I spent some time around landfills when I was, when I was a kid. Cause I had an uncle who worked.and just seeing just the piles of just like refuse and furniture and clothes and being in the near and around it in those mountains of trash was just like it’s just so soul-killing.
Dacher: Yeah. We gave you some questions and prompts that were a little bit more specific in this writing about this past fulfilled hope. And one was to describe steps you took or actions that you may have engaged in, and also the relationships that arose. When you were thinking about this past hope that was fulfilled, how did writing about it kind of evoke ideas about action or, or actions themselves?
Tomàs: For me, moving away from my small rural town that I grew up in and then moving to a college town where the ideals were more progressive and there was more of an interest in recycling and in conservation I went undergraduate and at Texas State University in San Marcos. And I can’t tell you how much joy it gives me when I walk up to like either a single stream recycling receptacle or where it’s like you have five choices and one of them is compost. It just fills me with so much joy that, “Okay, like all of this just isn’t going to a landfill.” And there’s a river that runs through the town in San Marcos, Texas. And the river has it’s like an ecologically sensitive area, so while people can swim in it, uh, there’s also like Texas wild rice that grows there and it grows nowhere else in the world.There’s a blind salamander. And seeing the university’s collaborations with the city on preserving that and protecting it and seeing people like actually doing research, you know, out there while people were sunbathing and whatnot. It really opened up my mind to like, there are other people, like-minded people who seriously, the charge of, you know, that we are stewards for this, this planet that we live on. It just felt like it was in the air and there was organization around it and people were promoting it and supportive and I didn’t feel strange like I did growing up in my small town where it’d be like recycling, you know?
Dacher: the flights of the imagination you’re taking us on of the ozone and the recycling and how it’s changed through your own reflection. Brings me to a question when you reflect on this hope writing process, does it kind of reveal to you certain principles or strength. Or concerns that are central to you in thinking about climate issues?
Tomàs: One of the things that doing the exercise at the writing practice did kind of bring home for me is how important it is to slow down. I feel like we just move through the world so fast and we’ve forgotten that we’re actually speeding through it. And I think we’re so disconnected from just what exactly is a normal, reasonable way to move through this space that we occupy. And I think that speed oftentimes does equate that haste does turn into waste, you know, um, a waste. Uh, not just like physical resources, but a waste of,, energy waste of waste of thought. A waste of feeling. So for me, the writing practice, one of the great things about it was and I think especially because I did it with on pen and paper, was just slowing down. So I was, I was really grateful, really grateful for that.
Dacher: Yeah. What an effect. I’m really curious, just pushing it a little bit, you know, how did this exercise shift your sense of eco anxiety and climate hope? Were there any reflections or insights it brought to you?
Tomàs: Having the part of the exercise be to reflect on a past hope that did come to fruition was one I was surprised that that was a part of the exercise.. But then secondly, my second reaction was like, oh, this is fantastic because it’s not just a problem focused, practice. List five things that you wish were different and, and, and then it leads to nothing. But having that component be, you know, what’s the one thing you hoped for that did come to pass it? It’s, so I feel like in my mind it reminded me that, oh yeah, sometimes things do work out. Not just because they just happen. Because, you know, we took collective action and that felt so, uplifting isn’t the word, but it, it just felt like, you know, if my sort of like mental mindscape was, was a sky, it felt like there was, half as many clouds, dark clouds,as there were before I started. We have a lot of work to do. You know, And I think for me, a huge part of how I navigate all of that is reminding myself that one, I can’t solve everything alone. Two, no one is expecting me to do that. And that three, a lot of these problems won’t find solutions within my lifetime, and that’s okay. But just doing my part while I’m here is important and not just, you know, succumbing to despair and doing nothing.
Tomàs: I know that anxiety and stress and depression and melancholy- all of these things are, they’re generational and what I want is I, I don’t one of my legacies to be that. Oh I taught my kids how you know, how to despair. I don’t, I don’t want to pass. I want to pass along to them. Hope, you know a practice of hope and that it’s not just something, you know that sure. Sometimes you wake up and you feel hopeful and sometimes you don’t. And just because you don’t on a certain day doesn’t mean you can’t get there. But I think those are things that have to be taught. You know, we’re just not, we’re not just born knowing how.
Dacher: I hear you. Thank you so much for your poetry and for writing about hope for our show. It’s, it’s been so, so wonderful to hear where it’s taken you and, and, uh, it gives me hope and a little bit less anxiety about these uncertain things we’re facing with climate crises.
Tomàs: Thank you. so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you.
Dacher: Tomás’ feelings of anxiety about the future are so common these days. Here in California we’ve experienced droughts and wildfires, and every corner of the world has its own story - be it about floods or rising water or mudslides or heat. But Tomás’s insight that …even if we don’t always wake up hopeful, there are things we can do to get there, is so powerful. So if you do know someone who struggles with these topics like so many of us do, share this episode with them, it helps us grow the conversation. We also have guided climate hope meditations to help. Next week’s Happiness Break episode focuses on our interconnection with the environment. Up next, we hear from the psychologist who created and tested this hope writing practice about how it works.
Charlotte: So one of the things we did was to ask things like How likely is it that this hoped for outcome will actually happen? What’s your level of motivation to do what you can to bring about this hoped for outcome?
Dacher: More, up next
Dacher: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness and our series: Climate, Hope and Science. I’m Dacher Keltner. Our environment faces an uncertain future. And it can feel really scary to hold onto hope for a good outcome. But what if we were able to identify times in our lives where we didn’t know what would happen, and we held a hope anyway … and then that hope was fulfilled? Poet Tomás Morín, who we just heard from before the break, tried a writing practice where he did just that. It was created by psychologist Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet at Hope College in Michigan.
Charlotte: Hope involves anticipating a good future that we think is possible and we really want to be true, and that isn’t 100% within our control alone. We can’t be completely assured but we believe it’s possible and so we’re motivated to pursue it.To invest in. Making more possible the likelihood that we will be able to experience this future.
Dacher: Our podcast’s executive producer, Shuka Kalantari, spoke with Charlotte about the experiment she conducted … and more details about how to do it. Here’s Shuka:
Shuka: The idea to actively try and make people more hopeful, started in a therapist’s office.
Charlotte: My name is Charlotte Van Oyen Witvliet, and my training is in clinical psychology and hope is utterly essential to therapy processes.
Shuka: Her studies show the more hopeful you are, the more likely you are to be patient, forgiving, have self-control, and feel grateful—with gratitude being the leading indicator that you’re a hopeful person. So with that in mind, Dr. Witvliet created the hopeful writing practice that author Tomas Morin tried for the show. And then she tested it out on 153 undergrad students.
Charlotte: First we had asked people, identify something that you really hope is going to happen, uh, in your life and that you can’t guarantee is going to turn out.
Like you really want it, you really care about it. and you can’t a hundred percent guarantee its outcome.
Shuka: They could write about anything — as long as it was really meaningful to them, and something where they couldn’t completely control
Charlotte: So one of the things we did was to ask things like: ‘How important is this hoped for outcome to you?’ How likely is it that this hoped for outcome will actually happen? What’s your level of motivation to do what you can to bring about this hoped for outcome?
Shuka: Afterwards, the students were divided into two groups. One group was given the mundane task of writing about all the different travel routes they took that day.
Charlotte: And then the people assigned to the gratefully grateful remembering condition went through a practice of identifying a past hope that they similarly longed for that they couldn’t a hundred percent guarantee it was gonna turn out the way that they really wanted, but that did turn out. We asked them to get really specific about what it was that they were grateful for and also to get really specific about who they were grateful to. We asked them questions like, what did you learn in the process of pursuing and experiencing this past hope that was, How did you use your own motivation and action to pursue this outcome.
Shuka: Throughout the experiment, Dr. Witvliet’s team surveyed each student to see how happy and hopeful they were feeling. The people who wrote gratefully about past fulfilled hopes reported feeling more happy and hopeful about the future happier, and motivated to make their hopes come true.
Charlotte: I often think about gratitude as a deep well that hydrates hope.
Shuka: Gratitude gives us something to draw on because we’ve seen evidence, time and again, of good things.
Charlotte: And so we have a sense that it can happen. I can’t passively presume, but I’ve seen evidence before that the story can turn out okay.
Shuka: It also comes back to the idea of ‘uncertainty’.
Charlotte:. It’s not a hope unless we have some degree of uncertainty because we haven’t seen it yet, right?
Shuka: But that uncertainty can feel uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. It can be really scary to not know what’s going to happen next.
Charlotte: I think we have to hold some space for lament. For the things that are really scary, and our own role in this. At the same time as we lament, we need to actively engage hope and name the good in that grateful kind of way, and partner together, uh, with people that are also pursuing these same, um, arduous and meaningful goods. And it’s when we have space for both Lament and hope that we can avoid this overwhelming kind of helpless despair on the one hand, but also not this sort of naive optimism that leads to presumption and passivity, on the other. So look for signs of life in places that should be desolate. Notice what’s happening there. it can kind of keep us going, like, “what I do matters and what I decide not to do also matters.”
Dacher: We have instructions on how to do the hope-writing practice we talked about today in our show notes. Give it a try and also, please share the show with someone who you think could use a bit more hope in their life. We’re going to be continuing this conversation in our next episode of The Science of Happiness. We talk about literal steps we can take to do our part to combat the climate crisis. And how sometimes, doing our part for the climate, and caring for our own well-being, are one and the same.
Diana Gameros: One of the things that walking gives you is that you’re sort of absorbing everything around you. That we can stay off our cars, and that that choice, it’s not gonna make us miserable. Totally the opposite. Yeah. We just have to remember it.
Dacher: It’ll be the final episode of our series: Climate, Hope, and Science—but not the last time we explore how our happiness and the health of our environment are profoundly interconnected. We plan to explore this relationship as one of the cornerstones of our well-being going forward.
Dacher: Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. As always, share your thoughts, and your writings, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or with our hashtag, #happinesspod. And don’t forget to check next week’s latest Happiness Break. It’s a wonderful meditation on feeling supported by the earth, and how that can add to your reserves when we really need a boost. Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. And our associate producers are Bria Suggs and Maarya Zafar. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.
EDITORS’ NOTE: It is really hopeful that recycling facilities have grown so much since Tomás was a kid — it shows how much most of us care about the planet. But since this is a science podcast, we wanted to share some of the recent science about recycling: It turns out, less than 10% of plastics actually get recycled. The rest is either burned, buried in landfills, or ends up in the ocean or elsewhere in the environment.
If reducing waste is something you want to work on, there’s still plenty you can do! And that’s mainly by using less. Try carrying a reusable water bottle, coffee mug, and silverware. Buy what you can from the bulk department of your grocery store using reusable containers, and bring your own bags. Store leftovers in tupperware instead of ziploc bags, and when you can, borrow and lend tools and small appliances amongst your friends and family, instead of buying your own.