July 5, 2016

3 Tips for Sustainably Changing our Unsustainable Behavior.

Do you want to see the end of global warming? Eradicate poverty? Achieve equality for all?

Many of us want to help. Help others, help make the world a better place, protect the environment. But because many also believe that whatever we do can’t possibly be meaningful, we often don’t always act in ways consistent with our values.

Don’t feel bad. Millions of people share the same sense of frustration, helplessness, anger, sadness—

These feelings are important. They tell us something is wrong and that we need to act.

Unfortunately emotions like these rarely move us to change the very behavior we know contributes to the problems we rail against.

How we can have such strong beliefs but not faithfully act on them? Why can’t we seem to change?

I confronted this very question doing research for my forthcoming book Invest like you Give a Damn. What I learned was that while changing our behavior to address complex, value-driven causes is possible, it is seldom easy to do.

Here are three tips I learned about how to change our ways more easily.

1. Integrate change over time.

Research shows people mostly change habits or traits over many years through a process referred to as mean-level change. This type of personal change is inevitable, and is essentially a long, slow personal metamorphosis.

So if you feel frustrated about not doing “enough” for your favorite cause, think back to what you’ve done and you’ll likely find that you have contributed in many ways. Did you begin buying organic or local produce? Avoid products from companies that pissed you off because of unacceptable environmental or social concerns? Have you volunteered or donated to a foundation? Started banking at a credit union? Whatever it is you are doing or have done contributes to the mean-level change that is a natural part of our psychological development.

Take advantage of this process by consciously choosing one or two actions you can take this month or this year on issues dear to your heart. Modest but purposeful change is a deeply satisfying, motivational aphrodisiac!

2. Leverage traumatic events for radical personal change.

The climate reaper is on its way. Last week, in fact, scientists confirmed: we lost our first mammal—the Bramble Cay melomy—to climate change.

According to almost all research, reversing climate change requires radical change to our economic behavior. Can we achieve such change? Or will we simply continue to produce and consume as always, while watching the water rise? Do we have it in us as a species to change?

Yes, absolutely! Indeed, opportunities for radical behavioral change, while not frequent, are offered several times to most of us over the course of our lives. The passing of a loved one and the loss of employment are unfortunate examples of rank-order change that can spur abrupt departure from an old to a new set of behaviors.

But rank order moments can be sparked by other less personal events. For example, my partner left her church because her much loved, gender equality advocating priest was censured. Another example includes the rough and tumble, conservative professional hockey team general manager Brian Burke, speaking out for LGBT rights after his son came out as gay.

Many of us, including myself, have experienced a rank order change moment with the unimaginably horrible murder of 50 innocent people in Orlando. The senselessness of this tragedy and the almost uniform repudiation by conservative forces in America that gun control was desperately needed, caused me to step up.

I will now no longer hide behind my Canadian passport and supposed political neutrality. I will publicly stand up for gun control in the United States and against the crazy logic that private ownership of firearms is somehow a good thing.

These big, traumatic events trigger “arousing” emotions…emotions that literally arouse us to change. Such events don’t come around all that often, but when they do, we must take advantage of them. Open your heart to the feelings they provoke, meditate on them, soak your judgments and world views in them—put these emotions into action and lasting change will result.

3. Stand up locally, do what you can globally.

I said at the top of this article that it sometimes seems big issues such as human rights, poverty, and peace are too big, too intractable, or too ethereal to for us to act on them in a meaningful way.

So instead of changing the habits we know contribute directly to these problems, we give a small donation, attend a seminar, or raise an angry voice,and then we forget about our concerns knowing painfully well we can do more. I know this feeling, and constantly fight the sensation of futility. How can we overcome a sense of helplessness and convert it to action?

One way is to channel the indignation, anger, despair, breathtaking beauty or whatever strong emotion we feel when something more tangible, something closer to home affects us.

I still feel visceral rage, for example, the moment I knew nothing could be done to stop the developer’s bulldozers from paving over a beloved local marshland. I can also draw on the stirring awareness of the amazing “world out there” awe when I met and became friends with a Zambian boy my age in rural British Columbia in 1974! When I feel down and helpless, I tap these feelings to bolster my life work and commitment to protect and advance all that is good and beautiful in this world.

Change is rarely easy but almost always rewarding.

There is much psychologists disagree upon about personal behavioral change, but they are fairly unanimous on how hard it can be to make lasting changes. But clearly, it is within us to better align our behavior with our social and environmental values, both over time, and at a given moment.

We need only be open and ready to cultivate the opportunities as they come.



Funder, David C. (2010). The Personality Puzzle (5th ed.).


Author: Marc de Sousa Shields

Images: elephant journal on Instagram, jacinta lluch valero/Flickr 

Editor: Catherine Monkman; Renee Picard


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Marc de Sousa Shields