Mindfulness and Climate Change

The following contains excerpts from the article of the same name by Menchi Liu, MA, and Emily Valente, MA

The reality of climate change is now being acknowledged by an expanding circle of authorities. Its effect on human lives is now clearly visible and impossible to ignore. It has already touched every element of our lives, from physical and mental health to global economic disruption. Climate change increases the number of people exposed to extreme incidents and, therefore, to subsequent psychological issues, such as worry, loss, grief, anxiety, depression, distress, trauma and even suicide.

Heatwaves are of particular concern. Night-time heat is associated with sleep deprivation — a cause and consequence of poor mental health, and heatwaves may also lead to wildfires, drought, food shortages and starvation.

Mindlessness and habitual behaviors

Mindlessness is a function of automatic mental processing and leads to repetitive, unthinking behaviors. In many homes this includes throwing all trash into one bin, taking long showers or throwing out unfinished food that aggregates on landfills and produces greenhouse gases. Mindfulness, on the other hand, promotes environmental sustainability. It helps individuals disengage from automatic thoughts and become more aware of their present actions. This allows greater openness to behavioral change and freedom to make different choices.

Mindfulness meditation is a learned practice centered around an intentional, compassionate and nonjudgmental attentiveness to the present moment, which in turn results in the development of openness to new information, and an awareness of self and surroundings. Current knowledge and research on mindfulness in sustainability, while both scarce and fragmented, is gaining momentum. The notion of “ecological mindfulness” has been proposed by sustainability scholars as a new approach to promote social and environmental sustainability.

Mindfulness can be key to politically sensitizing people and organizations to the consequences of unquestioned structures, power relations and consumer behaviors. It helps people feel more closely connected to, and understand the impacts of, their own behavior on distant communities and on the environment overall. Understood in this way, mindfulness is no longer just a concept that only addresses personal cognitive schemes, but also fosters a sense of person-environment connection.

Attention to connection of body, mind and nature

Walkers in nature

Mindfulness enhances the awareness of self-nature interconnectedness and, how our actions have a direct effect on the environment and ecosystem. Many studies utilize the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire to gauge shifts in mindful thinking among participants. Two of the facets are correlated with a higher frequency of engagement in pro-environmental behaviors. One question is: “I notice visual elements in an item, such as colors, shapes, textures or patterns of light and shadow.” Another is: “In difficult situations, I can pause without immediately reacting”. Mindfulness intensifies experiences within the natural environment, which may foster a stronger connection with the natural world. This may regulate behavior by making sustainable options more salient.

Nonmaterial value and wellbeing

Mindless consumption is passive behavior exemplified by actions like buying something that was not a planned purchase simply because it is on sale. Overconsumption correlates to diminished happiness, lower financial wealth, lower self-esteem, more anxiety and poorer social relationships . Material consumption may stem from impulsiveness, a psychological need for status or boredom. It can become a form of self-medication to soothe these feelings. Advertisements also play a critical role in materialism because they tell consumers that buying more equates to multi-faceted life enhancement.

Mindfulness improves subjective well-being, which is linked to higher self-esteem and greater satisfaction with life. By feeling content with oneself without seeking approval from others, a mindful person satisfies psychological needs through spiritual experiences, is less susceptible to marketing tactics, and does not consume to find fulfillment. The earth cannot support an unlimited use of natural resources and we are degrading our environment to produce goods at an alarming rate.

Increased cognitive flexibility and positive emotions

Improved health and well-being are also beneficial to those around us and likely have an impact on how we view and approach sustainable behavior. For instance, stress, depression and physical pain make it harder to personally act on societal concerns such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty and social inequalities; instead, attention is more likely to be drawn to more immediate personal problems, at the expense of more global or community concerns. If basic needs are not fulfilled, caring for the environment will probably be considered more of an “out there” problem. Mindfulness approaches are based on compassion and positive emotion, unlike crisis approach or motivation by fear, which is often used in climate change communications. Positive and sustainable lifestyle changes stem from elevated feelings and a connection to the natural world.

Limitations

It is challenging to start practicing mindfulness. Just like physical exercise, it takes time, dedication and patience to develop a mindful mindset. Besides, improving sustainable practices will not merely depend on a change in the cognition, attitudes and behavior of individuals. We need government support for policy change and access to sustainable options for all communities. Finally, we could benefit from future research that investigates mindfulness disposition in relation to sustainability in different cultures and societies.

The original article can be read here.

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