Board Blog

The Unexpected Link Between Environmental Action and Happiness

Joe Mitchell, ISEC Ex Officio Board Member

Disclaimer: I don’t have any actual data about this alleged link, just my own experience. But if you try what I tried, and it makes you happier too, now we have data! And if each of us tell two friends, and they tell two friends, in only 2^32 actionable conversations, the whole world, including the atmospheric gases, will be happier.

Action 1  Cancel your garbage service. In 1995, when we moved into our old farmhouse near Idaho Falls, I was looking forward to sleeping in one Saturday morning. But at 0630 the Grandpa’s Trash Services truck rumbled in to dump our container and woke me up. I canceled the service and started taking responsibility for my own trash. I separated the organics for a compost heap. I separated aluminum to recycle. Eventually I intentionally started to produce less waste, because it no longer disappeared, I had to take responsibility for it. Twenty-five years later I still save $40/month, and don’t need to buy as much fertilizer for the garden. I make about three trips per year in my mini-pickup to the transfer station to discard actual trash. My life is quieter, I spend less money, and my vegetables are healthier.

Action 2   Plant some trees. The primary greenhouse gas is CO2. Trees and all green plants absorb CO2. The carbon stays out of the air and in the tree, until it burns up or decomposes. Remember the photosynthesis diagram in your freshman biology book? No matter, trees keep absorbing carbon dioxide anyway, at the rate of about 50 lbs/year for a mature tree. And trees make me happy. If there is only one I can hug it. If there are two or more I can forest bathe. I don’t really hug trees or imagine I am bathing in them, but I like to look at them and watch them grow. I have driven past a house that we used to live in, not to see how the roof I put on is holding up, or guess who is living there now, but to see how big the trees I planted in the early 90’s are.

Action 3   Don’t buy stuff, do stuff. One calendar year my wife Kim and I decided that as act of counter-cultural self-discipline we would not buy anything. Of course we bought food and soap and things we used every day, but no clothes or books or furniture or skiis or anything else that would still be there at the end of the year. By October I was sorely tempted by an ultralight four-season tent marked down from $800 to $200, but we held firm. And we have continued to intentionally limit what we buy. The simplicity of this approach has given us more time and energy to do stuff, which is happier and healthier than buying stuff. The environmental benefit of this is that about one-third of greenhouse gases come from manufacturing and shipping, and the less we buy, the less that is needed.

Q: “But if we all bought less stuff, wouldn’t the worldwide economy collapse?”

A: “I don’t know. Even macro-economics phds can’t predict anything accurately. Lets try it and see.”

Q: “Ah, so you are advocating a simple life, like Thoreau?”

A: “No! Thoreau was too self-righteous about it. If he grew beans he was doing something monumental. If his neighbors grew beans they were living lives of quiet desperation. In my world of environmental action, everyone should be happy, and no one should be self-righteous.”

Action 4   (This one comes from my daughter). If you buy something, buy it from a local person who makes it. This makes her happy because the product, like a scarf, does not need to be packaged and shipped. And even more, it allows her to develop a relationship with the person who makes the scarf, and be part of a local community of friends. It is well known that having friends makes you happier and live longer, like those villages in Japan and the Caucases where the whole village still plays soccer together when they are 105 years old.

Action 5   Grow tomatoes. I think everyone should try to have a garden with as much square footage as their house. Then you might say, “We don’t need a 5 bedroom 4 bathroom 3500 sq ft house. There is no way I can keep up with the weeds!” And you would stay in your smaller house, and use less energy to heat it. (My house is 1750 square feet, and my garden is 3000 square feet, but then again, I am a self-righteous environmental activist.) But no matter where you live, even if you can’t have a full garden, if you have access to water and light and soil and seeds, you can grow something. Close your eyes and imagine you are biting into a juicy ripe Sun Gold cherry tomato. Can anything make you as happy as that? OK, maybe bacon and sex and pinot noir and good chocolate, but cherry tomatoes are much more reliable to cultivate on your deck.

Let’s review: You can be happier by creating less trash, planting things, making friends, and choosing to do instead of buy. Being self-righteous never made anyone happier, so put away that bony finger of accusation and use it for picking another tomato instead. 

I wish you grace and peace and happiness in your environmental journey.

Joe Mitchell, Idaho Falls 2021