Be the change you want to see in the world.
This quote by Gandhi gets trotted out a lot by people with nothing but the best intentions. Suitable for bumper stickers, motivational posters, and sticking to the top of blog posts, it seems custom-made for all your feel-good occasions. But what does it really mean? And what would it look and feel like to really be the change you want to see in the world?Advertising
Sam Davidson and Stephen Moseley of Cool People Care try to answer these questions in their book New Day Revolution: How to Save the World in 24 Hours (hereafter “NDR”). Organized according to the typical activities we engage in over the course of a single day, NDR offers a wealth of tips, tricks, and hacks that help transform everyday activities ranging from drinking a cup of coffee to giving gifts into revolutionary ones that, in ways small or large, help create a healthier, safer, and more compassionate world.
Little changes lead to big differences
The central premise of NDR is that little changes can add up to huge differences — in your life and in the world as a whole. For instance, waking up 9 minutes earlier every day — which you can do by hitting “snooze” one less time — will give you over 50 extra hours a year to live your life with. Dropping a few minutes of sleep isn’t a difficult thing to do, but it could well have life-changing effects.Advertising
Most of the tips presented by Davidson and Moseley combine these personal benefits with world-changing benefits, such as the advice to line-dry your clothes instead of running them through the dryer. Line-drying isn’t nearly as inconvenient as you’d think — if you don’t have a yard, a collapsible drying rack that fits comfortably into a corner of your house or apartment will do just as well. That’s what I did for 5 years living in New York City in tiny apartments — anyone who has relied on laundromats for their laundry needs knows the frustration of paying 75 cents or more to dry a load and still ending up with a mess of soggy clothes! SKipping the dryer for a month can save you as much as $5 (and probably more with increasing energy costs since the book was published) as well as reducing the need for coal by 10 pounds (and reducing the carbon that coal would have released into the atmosphere accordingly).
Here’s a few more tips to give you a taste of NDR’s approach:Advertising
- Get your coffee inside instead of going through the drive-thru: It will probably take just as long, plus you’ll save the gas you’d have burnt waiting for them to serve the people in front of you, you’ll get some small amount of exercise, and you’ll get a chance to interact with customers and maybe flirt with the barrista, if that’s your thing.
- Buy extra canned goods: Grab one extra of each non-perishable food item you buy and drop them off at a local shelter on your way home from the store or into work the next day. If you have pets, grab an extra can of pet food and drop it off at the shelter. Make this a regular part of your life’s routine, so you’re constantly giving a little bit of help where it’s needed in your community.
- Carry a spoon: Turn down the plastic stirrer with your coffee, or the plastic spoon with your frozen yogurt. Instead, whip out your own spoon, have your drink or dessert, and take it home. Billions of plastic spoons and stirrers are thrown out every year — that’s a lot of plastic, which means a lot of oil, just taking up landfill space!
Putting it all together
In addition to a list of tips like the ones above, each chapter of NDR also includes a profile of a person (or sometimes several people) who have chosen to make a difference in the world. Consider, for example, Jody. Jody decided to spend one year using only what she had (barring consumables like food and toiletries). For 365 days, she pledged not to buy anything new: no new CDs, appliances, household furniture, electronic gadgets — nothing. If she found she really needed something, she tried to trade someone for it, or somehow get it for free.
(Bonus tip: Check out Freecycle to see if there’s a freecycling group in your neighborhood. Freecyclers post the things they don’t need anymore to an email list, allowing whoever wants it to come and pick it up for free.)Advertising
Obviously Jody saved a lot of money. And that would be a big difference in most people’s lives. But Jody didn’t stop with saving money — she took the money she wasn’t spending on consumer goods and gave it to charities that work to alleviate poverty in both her own community and abroad. Her idea was pretty simple: stop buying the cheap goods whose availability is premised on the exploitation of cheap labor around the world, and use the money she saved to help make up for the effects of that exploitation.
The final word
New Day Revolution is, for the most part, a worthy read. It’s beautifully designed, well-written, and engaging. The tips can be a mixed bag — most people will find at least some of them that are either distasteful to them or impractical in their own lives. That’s almost inevitable, though, since NDR doesn’t really hew to any particular political line — it’s hard to cover all the bases without occasionally hitting a sour note for at least some readers.
In the end, though, it’s not so much the content of NDR that’s important as the concept. NDR advocates drawing the lines between the way you’d like the world to be and your own individual practices. They even provide a blank chapter for you to add your own thoughts and ideas — and a website, New Day Revolution, where they’re posting more ideas and you can add your own (click “Chapters” and add comments under the relevant chapter heading).
New Day Revolution is a helpful, easy read. It would make a great gift for a recent high school or college graduate, or perhaps for a new parent or anyone who’s trying to bring their lives more in line with their values. While I can see re-reading it for inspiration now and again, none of the tips are so complex that you’d need it as a reference, so feel free to follow the authors’ own advice (on page 88) and check it out of your local library.
Last Updated on July 17, 2019
The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)
What happens in our heads when we set goals?
Apparently a lot more than you’d think.
Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.
According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.
Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.
Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.
Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams
The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.
Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.
So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.
Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.
One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.
Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.
Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.
The Neurology of Ownership
Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.
In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs!
But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.
This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).
Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.
The Upshot for Goal-Setters
So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?
On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.
It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.
On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!
But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!
More About Goals Setting
- How to Set Goals and Achieve Them Successfully
- How to Set SMART Goal to Make Lasting Changes in Life
- How Setting Personal Goals Makes You a Greater Achiever
Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com
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