Helping the World by Wanting What Actually Makes You Happy
Colin is best known as the man who committed to reducing his carbon footprint to zero by living sustainably for a full year in New York City, as chronicled in the documentary No Impact Man. His new book is How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World. In it, he invites readers to explore the practical spirituality that can arise from questioning the story that we can’t make a difference. He also suggests that taking small, practical steps that express our compassion for others and the planet can simultaneously bring unexpected happiness into our own lives.
Colin discovered a whole new level of personal fulfillment by rejecting the standard narrative of what makes for a happy and successful life. That story, in its many forms, usually results in two things: one is the hamster-wheel of always chasing money and status; the other is the endless search for personal happiness. He says that what really creates happiness is moving from “self-help” to “each-other-help.”
Our conventional life approaches have not only failed to bring us happiness — they’ve also caused grave problems for the planet. But there’s a growing movement around the world of many thousands of people who Colin calls “lifequesters.” These people are forging non-standard lifestyles that are better for them and better for the world.
Colin’s most important message is that living a life in line with our values is much easier than we think. The first step is to understand what actually makes human beings feel happy and purposeful — as opposed to what society tells us. Then, one small step at a time, we can begin to build those happiness and service-oriented elements into our everyday choices and decisions, experimenting with finding what makes us feel healthy, safe and like we matter to the world.
Using our experiences with these small decisions to build confidence, we can then begin making larger adaptations to our life circumstances to support the new, purposeful way of life we are discovering.
Colin helps people notice how our lives are deeply shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves the story “I don’t make a difference” over and over, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many of us are trapped inside that story. Also, we often assume that if we tried to make a difference it would mean doing all kinds of things that don’t feel “natural” to us.
Colin turns this thinking on its head, suggesting that all we have to do is to notice and choose what is natural to us. As we make choices that express our innate compassion, we can emerge from the false narrative in which so many of us are trapped. We can begin to make new, more compassionate choices toward making a difference, even if at first they seem like baby steps.
In the context of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, most of us are “refusing the call.” The good news is that this refusal is the first step of the Hero’s Journey! Within each of us, our psyches yearn to complete that journey. When we don’t find ways to express our innate compassion, we painfully stunt our development as human beings.
Helping the world is not a sacrifice. It can be the greatest fulfillment of our nature. You can become yourself to save the world. And you can save the world to become yourself.
We deepen spiritually as well. Colin recently spoke at Harvard Divinity School about Tolstoy & Gandhi’s concept of “bread-labor.” Tolstoy said the first commandment was “by the sweat of thy brow, you shall eat your bread.” If we don’t put the labor into feeding ourselves, we become divorced from some essential aspect of ourselves. Tolstoy saw this as a political and a spiritual issue. The aristocracy were disconnected from God because they didn’t do any manual labor. For this reason, Gandhi spun his own cotton. Today, self-reliance, growing our own food in our communities, creating with our hands, puts us in a better place to experience Mystery and allows us to be in the existential insecurity that comes with experiencing God.
Colin’s work offers an invitation to reframe the possibility of making these kinds of “each-other-help” changes to our lives. Rather than being shamed by the “shaking finger of should,” we can regard these shifts as a happy opportunity to live our values more fully, build community, and contribute to the betterment of the world.
I’m excited to dialogue with Colin and discover a different place where some key themes of my own spiritual teaching, like Courage and Trust can be enacted in new ways. I hope you will join us!