By Anne Therese Gennari
What does it mean to be a climate optimist? Does it mean that you sit back and relax and hope that everything will work out somehow? Sorry to kill the Netflix party, but no. Sitting on our butts doing nothing is not how we’ll change the world, even if we spend that time in deep prayer and hourly long meditations.
Slowing down and doing less is a big part of the climate optimist lifestyle, but it’s not the full picture. So if you thought optimism was about wishful thinking, think again!
How about carefully choosing your focus? Does being a climate optimist mean that you look for positive news and exciting innovations, reasons to believe in a green transition and sustainable future? We’re getting closer, but that’s not quite it either. Because – believe it or not – being a climate optimist takes work. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely worth it!
You can’t choose optimism
The biggest misunderstanding with optimism, I think, is that we believe that it’s something we get to choose or not choose. We ask one another, “Are you an optimist?”, as if that’s something we get to pick on the daily, just like settling for an outfit and trying to match socks.
If you’ve ever turned on the news, you know this can be a mission set up for disaster, especially if you’re looking for climate positive news. Trying to be a climate optimist in a world with nothing but news of climate disaster is like playing golf with a ski pole in the dark. Frustration grows and in that frustration, denial.
I was there for many years. In my early days as a climate optimist, I thought that if I can only focus on the positive, ignore the bad, and continue wearing that smile I was given, I could show myself and the world that there is still hope. I could be the sun in all the clouds.
Climate anxiety (or eco-anxiety) is a result of not actively paying attention to the news we are absorbing – both consciously and subconsciously – and we’ll cover more on that in a future column. However, the seriousness of climate anxiety is one of the main reasons why we need to treat our optimism with a great deal of respect.
Having suffered through numerous meltdowns and years of anxiety and self-sabotage, I’ve come to the conclusion that this approach doesn’t work. You can’t just choose optimism, you have to create it.
How to be an Optimist In Action
I want you to know that your heart can take more than you think. It’s probably the strongest muscle in your body (both spiritually and biologically) and as with any other muscle, with training, it can get even stronger!
I will talk about how to grow emotional resilience and tips for dealing with difficult climate news in upcoming issues, but for now, understand that ignoring the hard news is not the way to go. In fact, to be a climate optimist is to act from a place of absolute awareness!
What I meant by optimism taking work is that you can’t be a radical and grounded optimist only feeding off of other people’s sources. In order to sustain your life in Camp Optimism, you have to be that source for yourself.
But here’s the secret that will blow your mind! You have a system in your body that will reward you for this kind of work. They’re called the happiness hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins) and I’ve learned that daily climate activism actually creates a lot of these! Trust me – as soon as you get started, you’ll begin to feel amazing, and it’ll be hard to stop.
To be an Optimist In Action is to be the change you wish to see in the world and in doing so, fueling your own optimism from within. You’re not just hoping things could get better, you’re proving to yourself that they can!
Even if it’s just small things, like saying no to that plastic lid at the coffee shop or taking the bike instead of the car, you begin to exercise this optimism on a regular basis. Small actions build character and set the framework for who you are, which will completely change how you view the world and the things you believe to be possible.
On a brain-chemistry level, optimism is critical for solutions-thinking and new visions, visions we need to co-create a better world. As psychologist Barbara Fredrickson puts it:
“To solve bigger, more ambiguous problems, we need to encourage open minds, creativity, and hope.”
Be the change but give yourself a break
To wrap it up – you can’t just choose optimism, you must create it! But the more optimism you create, the better you feel, and the easier it’ll be to do more of it. Relying on sources that you can’t control to give you reasons to believe in a better world is silly at best. In many cases, this “wishful thinking” can lead to despair, inaction, and even anxiety and depression.
We will have to act on our current roadmap and get ready to reroute when called for. But if we keep our spirits high and find new fuel as the journey goes on, we will get there, together!
My top 5 for becoming an Optimist In Action
- Slow down and ask questions – to yourself, to others, and to your community. How can we unlearn and do better?
- Don’t overwhelm yourself by wanting to do it all at once. Choose one thing you can change about your life today and then keep adding on. Grow with this!
- Remember that you’re not alone. Positive actions are addictive, positive actions with others become a movement. It’s hard to leave a movement, so find your tribe and have fun!
- Understand that humans belong in the cycle of life. We’re not just the problem – we can actually be the solution! It’s not about minimizing negative impact, but how to maximize our positive one!
- You’re only human. It’s OK to have good days and bad days, so give yourself a break. Just don’t take too long breaks. Treat your optimism like any professional athlete and you’ll soon be in top shape!
How are you planning on being an Optimist In Action today? They say that things written down have a significantly greater chance of getting done, so I challenge you to find a piece of paper and write down one empower climate action you can start taking today!
*Optimist In Action is co-termed between Anne Therese Gennari and Robin Miller Shaw.