NASA have cited 2017 as the second hottest year on record. Scientists have declared that we’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of animals and plants (the other five were caused by things like asteroid strikes – this one is because of us). Microplastics have been discovered in the furthest reaches of the Antarctic.
In short: living a more environmental life is more than prudent – it’s essential for our future. It’s also something that has slipped into the norm, with the plastic backlash piqued by the success of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, as well as the sharp incline in environmental veganism.
Another reason being touted as a motivation? Upping your happiness levels. “Living a more sustainable life brings a great sense of purpose and helps us recognise that we are all part of something bigger,” says Dr Mark Williamson, Director of Action For Happiness*, a charity devoted to helping people to create a happier and kinder world.
It’s this sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves that is so powerful. Think of the recent interest in the Japanese idea of ikigai, which roughly translates as the source of purpose in one’s life – the reason you get out of bed in the morning.
For John Pritchard, founder of ethical eyewear company PALA, a sustainable life is a more meaningful life. “Being more mindful about the planet as well as the human and economic impact of my consumption decisions has led me down better paths,” he says. He recommends devoting an hour a week to something like a beach clean, to become attached to something that’s outside of your normal routine of focusing primarily on yourself and a handful of people you’re close to.
At home, think about moving towards solar energy, saving water and being smarter with your heating, to contribute to the larger carbon-saving effort.
Connection to nature
We know, intuitively, that time in nature makes us feel uplifted. And, if you try and live sustainably, you’re likely to get more involved with the world outside of four walls and screens: whether that’s growing herbs or going for a walk, rather than shopping or scrolling through Instagram. And that’s big: the 2016 ‘30 Days Wild’ project – a month long challenge from The Wildlife Trusts to the public to spend time nature everyday – evidenced that the 18,500 people who took part reported increased happiness levels after daily interaction with the outdoors.
“A big part of my journey has been reconnecting with nature. Living in central London, that’s not easy, but going for a walk on Wimbledon Common is free –and has definitely improved my mental health,” says Nonki Azariah, a photographer and founder of sustainable lifestyle blog, Go Wildly And Slow.
Phoebe Hunter-McIlveen, co-founder of Project Pico, a line of sustainable and ethical underwear, agrees. “I think being more conscious of looking after nature means you care less about monetary things. If you grow your own veg, for example, you realise that happiness isn’t about [financial] success and that working with your hands and learning new skills can hugely affect your wellbeing.”
Your health and happiness are linked. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that increased fruit and vegetable consumption was linked to greater self-reported happiness levels within a 24 month period.
Good news is, sustainable food often translates to healthier food, like locally-grown ingredients that don’t leak out nutrients through time spent in transit (a 2008 study from Montclair State University in the US found that 50% of a broccoli’s vitamin C content was lost when it was shipped out of the country, as opposed to consumed locally).
“If you make a decision to stop buying food that comes in a ridiculous amount of plastic wrapping you end up going to the market and buying food that’s fresher and more local,” Azirah says. “I started to get a veg box [delivered] and now get all of this food that I wouldn’t normally buy.”
If you start cooking with vegetables that you wouldn’t normally eat, you’re bringing more varied nutrients into your diet – something that has been linked with a lowered risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
One way that getting into the world of sustainability can trigger negative emotions? That feeling of overwhelm. Once you start picking at the wool of how unsustainably our world is set up, the enormity of the issue feels daunting and can (understandably) provoke a ‘what’s the point?’ mentality.
The trick is to not try and change everything at once. “Do one thing at a time,” Maša and Michael Ofei, the couple behind The Minimalist Vegan blog and book, say. That could be food, clothing, energy use, or transport. “And find the ‘why’ for living sustainably – from reading and watching documentaries [about climate change and the stress our planet is under].”
It looks to be the case that hurdles, mistakes and mess-ups notwithstanding, it’s worth tugging at sustainable living for our own sense of calm.
“We’re bombarded with unhelpful messages about what makes for a good life. We’re told that it’s about shopping and spending, having a big house or a fast car,” Williamson says. “But the research shows that other things actually matter much more. The great news is that many of the things that really make us happy are good for the environment, too – like cycling, chatting with friends, gardening, getting lost in a book, singing, helping a local charity or sharing a joke.”
Ultimately, we’re not going to get it right every time. But all signs point towards contributing to the planet’s health being worth the effort. Who doesn’t want a more profound, purpose-driven life?
*Action For Happiness is an independent entity and does not endorse any product, brand or commercial entity.