Receive pleasure. Avoid pain. If it was only for biology, these two mechanisms could be enough to define the thresholds of human behavior. But where does the avoid pain mechanism fold under? Is it pleasure, or is it pain? What about masochism? Where does this behavior fit into? What about anhedonia? Where does this inability to feel pleasure and a defining symptom of depression fold under?
These are some of the questions where psychology beats biology. But, from the social psychology perspective, there is one even more critical question to address: Today, we can artificially produce pleasures that are far more intense than anything offered by the natural world, as Robert Sapolsky would put it. We are addicted to the instant and immediate pleasures that consumer society provides.
In our social world, filled with synthetic experiences, hard-won pleasures are hard to find. The quest for answers to the underlying existential problems struggles under the thick layer of ‘easy solutions’ and ‘quick fixes’ available just a ‘one-click away’ from us.
Being part of our social world is a long, continuous sequence of tradeoffs between pleasure and pain. However, the equation in the sequence is centered on a straightforward bottom line. The me.myself.and.I bottom line. Its threshold is the self-centered pursuit of instant pleasure, which is aligned with individual purchasing power. It is the purchasing power that balances the scale of tradeoffs. We make physical, moral, financial, and other sacrifices to push the scale towards satisfying my.myself&I bottom line.
One of the most common absurdities of tradeoffs is the one expressed by Dalai Lama. When asked what surprised him most about humanity, he answered, «Man! Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money, and then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.» While the complexity of our social world increasingly accelerates its paste, we are constantly faced by a situation where similar tradeoffs need to be done. It is a hard and arduous journey, but answering the following Dalai Lama’s questions can help putting things into perspective and seeing beyond my.myself&I bottom line. Following are Dalai Lama’s questions that will help to guide decisions beyond the social and environmental threshold:
Is it just good just for me, or is it also good for the others?
Is it good for many or few?
Is it good for the now or the future?
Without the universal understanding of a threshold as a societal norm or ecological level deemed good enough, the sequence of tradeoffs remains limited to choices that perpetuate anthropocentric climate change and biodiversity loss. We constantly need to be reminded that we are mere elements in a more extensive web of life despite our proven creative and destructive powers. And that all our actions have far-reaching consequences.
Limiting our responsibility to the me.myself.and.I bottom line is refusing to acknowledge our impact. And beyond that, it is refusing to recognize our mortality, because acting as if there were no consequences is believing that there is no tomorrow. And this is incompatible with human nature. If faced with the choice: get one apple now or wait until tomorrow and get three, of all the mammals, we are the only ones who would accept waiting for our investment to grow. We are nature’s most sophisticated time machines, and this condition is what makes us so powerful.
If we are to avoid being consumed by this power, the tradeoff we make must also favor social and environmental systems. Only this way are we to step away from the depletive mentality and embrace the symbiotic one.
While facing climate change, ‘We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each.’ Karen O’Brien quotes John Holdren before introducing inner transformation as the fourth potential response to global environmental change. Here lies the symbiotic potential of coexistence between species, which underlines the fact that the interests of the individual are tied to the interests of the social group and ecosystems.
Although, while demanding action, most of the attention is being placed upon business and politicians, let’s not forget that our personal choices, expressed through consumption behavior, drive nearly ¾ of GHG emissions globally. This places household consumption and behavioral decisions central to our sustainable, low-carbon futures.
What kind of businesses and politics we will have is not beyond our control. Through everyday choices, we shape the economic and social structures that, in return, influence our behavior. It is a systemic process where we as individuals are not just simple recipients of the (good or bad) power decisions. We are active co-creators because power is a polycentric and systemic phenomenon. In other words, as Michel Foucault had framed it: Power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.
A straightforward exercise of personal power to fight climate change comes through mindful consumption. Here is an example of how you can manage and evaluate the impact you are making through personal choices. It is pursuing the Triple Win.
When faced with a decision that impacts society and the environment, ask yourself:
Is it beneficial for me? – A
Is it beneficial for society? – B
Is it beneficial for encompassing systems? – C
In practical terms, picture the choices you have for mobility. For example, if you need to get from A to B you get to choose between
- Driving alone
- Carpooling (Sharing car with others)
- Taking public transport
The goal is to accumulate as much of B’s, and particularly C’s as possible. Ideally, in time, there will be a universal scheme where all products and services will be rated A, B or C and consumers will get incentivized for making better choices. Until then, approach it is a useful personal practice to set a ‘C type’ mindset and influence others to follow. The more people practice, the sooner businesses and politicians will be forced to set structures to facilitate and promote having more companies providing B and C products and services.
Most of the choices that we make and whose impact is detrimental for social and environmental systems, are not so much related to avoiding pain as much as they are related to not receiving (immediate) pleasure. Therefore, before rushing to draw the line under the first question, keep on answering the second and the third one. You will realize that eventually, if it’s good for society and the encompassing systems, it is good for you too. And most importantly, through postponing pleasure, you will avoid the pain that will come if the social and environmental systems are pushed beyond the life-sustaining boundaries.
So, push for as many C’s as you can get because the ‘C’ stands for the Champion of the Triple Win.