During his life, Colin tried many paths to find a way of living that makes him feel truly happy: working in a well-payed job, later serving NGOs and finally following his passion for writing. Though the recipes of our society did not seem to work. He was still not happy, felt stuck and powerless when thinking of the problems our society is facing.
At that point, he asked himself: What would happen if, instead of complaining about global problems, such as climate change, I would just change something in my own life that is linked to the problem? How would I feel about it?
With that question in mind in 2007, he started a year-long experiment of living with “zero environmental impact” in New York City with his family – a wife, a toddler and a dog. That lifestyle experiment led him to a personal epiphany: “When what I do is in line with my values, rather than with what social norms dictate, I feel that I contribute to solve the problems I care about and also feel much happier. By helping the suffering I see in the world, I also help to heal my own suffering”
Colin shared his epiphany through many projects. His voice resonated with thousands of people, that like him started changing their own lifestyle.
Majka: Which of your projects had the biggest impact on people?
Colin: I think No Impact Man the book had the deepest impact on people because they see this big gigantic negative changes that are happening on a global scale, but often don’t know how to do something about it. The No Impact Man offers the possibility of not getting stuck in worrying about answering whether we make a difference or not. It gives a way to get involved in doing things we care about. And when people do things, they realize that they are actually making a difference in their own life. It makes people feel like they matter.
Majka: Why are these tiny changes done by people at an individual level relevant to solve the global challenges we face?
Colin: Individuals volunteer for environmental or social organizations, make lifestyle changes, create businesses, go on marches and get involved in this civic process. People drive cultural and systemic change everywhere: if you get them to get started and become active, you unleash a ripple effect on many systems.
Also, research shows that starting individual personal change is linked to social activism. If somebody starts to make changes on an individual level, chances are that, if there is a pathway, they will end up becoming active in collective action too. Most of the collective activists – like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela – all do the individual actions, too. This comes from the need of human beings to live in a way that is consistent with what we believe in.
Helping oneself and helping the world is the same thing
Majka: Engaging people in personal change seems to be a powerful entry point to change systems. But how do you get people to become active?
Colin: First you need to understand the main needs and drivers of humans. Humanistic psychologists, like Jung, coined the concept of self-actualization. The idea is that – after the physical needs are met – the entire human being is pointed towards a fullness of expressions that lead to self-actualization. Self-actualization is the top of human development, it is about being yourself by bringing out the gifts that you have inside you in service of your community.
Colin: When all our needs are met we feel truly happy. This means that if we want to experience happiness, we need two things: we need to receive from the world things that give us a sense of security (from food, sleep, feeling safe, feeling financial and social stability, trust in people, etc.) and we need to express ourselves in a way that gives us a sense of meaning and purpose.
While looking at it closely, we gain a sense of meaning when we relate to people and the world in ways in which we can fully express ourselves while feeling that what we do helps others. Helping yourself means to find meaningful ways to relate to the world and this again means to help the world.
“Likewise, helping oneself and helping others are like the two wings of a bird.”
As Zen master Won Hoy said. I also explain more about this idea in the How to Be Alive book. For this reason, to me, civic engagement and human actualization are close to the same thing.
3 stages of waking people up for change
Majka: How can we apply this idea to “wake up” people to become active in social and environmental causes?
Colin: I see that people “waking up” to their power for change often go through three stages. Not everyone follows the same path and the different stages can happen simultaneously.
- Feel dissatisfaction with the dominating “life approach” and listen to your inner voice to find your passions
- Start changing your life by starting doing something you love
- Keep growing by finding your people and community
1. Start by questioning the standard life approach and listen to your inner voice
Colin: Often people start by realizing that the traditional ways of living, that are laced down in our culture, don’t lead us to personal happiness and harm the world.
The story that we were told is that it will be good for us to go to school, go to college, get a job, buy a house, get married, have kids. We were told that going this path will also be good for the world, as we would do things like pay taxes, which will pay for the fire trucks and go towards social services. We were told that it is good to be part of this consumer economics machine: we would make money, buy things, create work in factories and just be part of the machine. Without having to question the system we would be happy.
The problem is that first of all the standard path doesn’t make us fully happy. People even if they are successful in going down this path, they are working 50-60 hours a week (at least in the United States) while doing jobs at corporations with missions they don’t believe in. And on the other side, by buying stuff and paying taxes we do not help the world, instead, we are destroying the environment we live in.
As this standard life approach is not leading us to happy and meaningful lives we need to find new paths. There is no new path that is set down though. That means that what we have to do is to follow our own wisdom and our own passions.
The people that are embarking on this journey of self-discovery, of building new paths and of having fun while doing so are what in the How to Be Alive book I call “Lifequesters”.
2. Getting un-stuck with tiny exciting steps
Majka: Many people are unsatisfied with the standard life approach and question things. But really changing the own life can be very difficult, we can feel stuck. How can people go about that?
Colin: Most of life is actually lived in the small decisions. That is why, a good way to get started is to start with a tiny, easy step that leads us closer to living our passions. Like for instance, if we were dreaming of playing the guitar, starting to play the Ukulele can by a first tiny step that may bring us closer to the joy of playing the guitar. By expressing ourselves we will unleash an inner process leading to more actions.
Or also, if we want to “eat healthy” instead of changing our diet completely, which will be quite difficult, we can start just by cooking one “healthy” meal today. And then try to make it a habit, and start cooking one healthy meal every Sunday and also invite friends to share the meal with you. Besides having a good time together, they may also give you some tips and motivate you even further.
Majka: How should people choose where to start from?
Colin: People could start by checking first where the biggest impact is and start there. But the problem is that even if we may have a list of the most important things, people don’t like to be told what they should do. Even if they would try to change something that has a very big impact first, but then they stop, at the end that’s not good.
But if they start getting involved in the things they are very passionate about and serve a cause that is important to them, they may end up living step by step a lifestyle that is more sustainable, happier, more just and brings more peace and equity.
3. Find your community and keep growing
Majka: How do you make sure people don’t stop even if they start by changing something they are passionate about?
Colin: I still think that in the process of individual change the most important thing is that people get involved in their community. I talked a lot about that in How to Be Alive. This is because when we are changing, all of our support systems are invested in stopping us from changing. Our relationships stabilize us. We are all part of a social net. All the strings are the connections you have to kind of keep you in place.
For instance, when you are starting to consider eating less meat, there are friends with whom you don’t want to talk about how to become a vegan because you know that what they want is to continue eating meat. So there is a conflict of values. One thing you could do is to just leave the community that you have and be a vegan by yourself.
Or you could find another community of vegans, which supports you and makes you feel like: “Oh, I’m ok. I’m all right in thinking and behaving in this way.” Because you have the support of these fellow vegans it kind of means that you don’t have to leave your earlier community because now you have the strength to stand for your own opinions.
The other thing that happens is that once you find your community, chances are that they will get you involved in more activities, they may ask if you want to come to a march with them for instance. Once you are in a community, you have one place where first you can reinforce your values and secondly where the community can take you to the next stage.
In the next post Colin Beavan is sharing a few tips with Changemakers designing solutions supporting behaviour change. Stay tuned by signing up for our Newsletter.