Stare into Infinity and notice you are insignificant. Then, stare into It again and realize you are Important… -Vulpe
Mainstream American society mistakes happiness with consumption and pleasure; we are now a society that lives under increasing sustainability challenges due to human activity, and where individuals live in isolation despite packed metropolises. Studies show that since the 1980’s, the percentage of American adults that feel lonely has doubled from 20 to 40 percent.1 A rise in affluence, coupled with the development of technology, and our distance from the natural environment have diminished values of community, equity, love, and, ultimately, our internal balance. Balance, as a state, is where individuals experience qualities of awareness, mindfulness, non-attachment, peace, and contentment – it can be thought of as a calmness of mind. As a process, balance is the practice of experiencing these qualities in our everyday lives. Finding balance involves self-acceptance and mindfulness of experienced thoughts, feelings, and emotions. However, as members of a consumerist society, many of us have forgotten how to find and maintain balance.
Conversely, many indigenous and native cultures have remained connected with practices related to balance. These cultures are grounded in philosophies of living in harmony with nature and respecting all beings. For example, the Inca culture cherishes and regards Earth or Pachamama, as the mother of all beings, thus cultural practices are sensible to earth’s natural cycles and balance. In agriculture, to maintain the health and nutrient diversity of soils, the Incas practiced crop rotation; a technique that helps in reducing soil erosion and increases soil fertility and crop yield. Another example is the case of the Navajo (Diné) culture. The Navajo delimited its territory to the sacred mountains that surrounded the community because that had been the land that gave birth to the culture.2 Individuals had a strong sense of community and place. Nature was part of the community and, as such, the community limited their resource consumption only to what was needed.3-4
Over time, population growth, the rise of affluence, the development of technology, and the pursuit of progress have hampered the relationship between humans and nature. Individuals began seeking more resources, adding greater complexity to their daily lives. As people consumed more, and product marketing increased, the more convinced individuals became that consumption equals happiness. The industrial revolution stands out as a tipping point for this mindset when humans realized the growth potential of drawing on external resources (e.g., natural resources, such as petroleum and technology). A clear example of the worldwide increase in use of resources can be seen through growth in atmospheric CO2: after the industrial revolution, CO2rose from 280 ppm to 381 ppm in 2006, which is the highest CO2 concentration for the last 650,000 years.5 We have become trapped in a cycle of problems associated with consumption and are trying to find solutions through more consumption (e.g., oil extraction for national and international development accelerates climate change); and the cycle never ends. In other words, rather than seeking answers to problems within ourselves first, we have been using resources with which we have lost an intrinsic connection. An over-reliance on these external resources, led by political and economic structures, has led to a state of unbalance that has been growing over the years.
The time has come for a new approach. Many of the global issues the world faces, such as climate change or wars, are the result of imbalanced relationships, behaviors, and associated actions. In the case of anthropogenic climate change, individuals consume too much, worry too much, compete too much, and the outcome is a wicked problem with unclear solutions. In the case of wars, we lack the skills needed to understand the values and beliefs of other individuals, instead of placing higher value on our own beliefs and opinions, leading the way toward conflict. By practicing compassion, empathy, and mindfulness, we allow balance to come to our life. A balanced individual is a powerful source of energy who can influence others to also live balanced lives.
What do we need to cultivate balance?
The cultivation of balance is a continuous practice to develop supporting skills, tools, and resources for sustainable behavior. There is no secret formula or guide on how to cultivate balance, we just need to follow our senses. Below, however, we provide some helpful steps to start and continue the practice of cultivating balance.
An important step toward balance is the incorporation of internal healing. We cannot cultivate balance if we have not healed ourselves first. For example, a childhood trauma may create long-term, complex, internal wounds (i.e., psychological trauma) that must be healed for a person to achieve their full potential in life. Without healing, individuals may develop insecurities and fears in response to trauma, and, in an attempt to find happiness, they may avoid addressing the associated wounds. Imagine the pain a child experiences when her parents go through divorce; she may feel her world is going to end. Such pain may cause insecurities and the cultivation of an unbalanced ego. If this little girl learns to ignore the pain, she will grow up with an internal wound. She needs to take an active role to reconcile her past, her pain, and relationship with her parents. By healing those internal wounds, she will have taken a step toward cultivating balance.
The process may not be easy – it is normal to be afraid of what we do not know, and it is a novel act to face such fears. In fact, facing our fears will help us realize a potential for growth and the skills to heal toward balance. For example, consider the aversion one may experience to falling in love. Being afraid of loving prevents us from becoming fully loving individuals and individuals who extend unconditional love to others. With any fear and aversion, it is important to reflect on the causes by going deeper than what we see at the surface level. In the example of love, one may ask why someone would be afraid of loving. The answer may be fear of pain or the fear of rejection. Thus, we can begin work to address the root cause of our fears, making sure to address the situation with loving actions and thoughts. By allowing love to permeate our lives, we can critically analyze ourselves without going to a negative place. Love creates love, the same way that hate creates hate.
Mindful Awareness of Our States
Balance requires awareness, acknowledgment, and acceptance of our feelings. The most common emotional state pursued by human beings is happiness, so we can start our journey toward balance by understanding happiness. Despite the general belief, happiness is not limited to high spikes of energy (hedonia) characterized by laughter, smiles, and positive feelings (that tend to be short-lived), but includes other feelings such as meaning and being at peace (eudaimonia).6-8 Imagine a long horizontal line of emotions – the Happiness Scale. On one end of the line is the maximum level of eudaimonic happiness one can experience (feelings such as temperance, compassion, and benevolence). On the other end of the line, is the maximum level of unhappiness (one may experience depression or hatred in this state). In our everyday lives, we travel to and from different states on that line, sometimes feeling driven, sad, anxious, joyful, angry, or calm, among many other feelings we have. In a balanced state, we find ourselves in the mid-point of this line, where there is neither pure bliss nor sheer unhappiness, but rather awareness, contentment, and acknowledgment of our current state. When we are in a state of balance, we continue to be fulfilled human beings who experience a range of emotions. The difference is that we can bounce back to the mid-point after, for example, feeling despondent or revved with excitement. A state of balance allows us to accept and be mindful of ourselves and others around us. It gives rise to understanding and embracing our feelings, even those that we oftentimes try to avoid, such as sadness.
Finding Meaning in the Good and the Bad
Society teaches us that happiness is the desirable state, and unhappiness is to be avoided. However, it is important to acknowledge that we have different emotions for a reason. As we need day and night, we need happiness and unhappiness to grow as individuals and to have a fulfilling life. In other words, awareness and acceptance of happiness and unhappiness is part of the process to experience inner balance. Negative and positive feelings (as we normally label them) complement one another. We would not know what it is like to be happy if we had never experienced unhappiness. Additionally, in terms of biology, we need to feel the full range of emotions that humans experience. Negative emotions may indicate a threat, and positive emotions may signal an advantageous situation.9 For example, when we feel anxious, that may be our bodies telling us that we need to slow down in our work and reconnect internally. It is important to listen to what our bodies are telling us. Allowing our emotions to flourish leads to internal and external growth. If we take mindful steps to cultivate balance through processes of finding meaning in both the perceived good and the bad, we can also create a long-lasting effect of contentment and happiness in our lives.
Connecting with Our Inner Selves
Living in a society that strives for hedonistic happiness maximization, without accounting for our true feelings, may pose a threat to our well-being and happiness in the long-term. An increasing detachment from our inner selves is evident by the significant use of pharmaceutical and psychiatric products and services. Individuals in the US are being prescribed anti-depressants at a higher rate than ever before10 to combat depression, while holistic and homeopathic methods are rarely considered. Prescriptions in general, such as sleeping pills, are on the rise,11-12 for symptoms that can be solved with less intrusive resources, such as lavender essential oil, a magnesium supplement, meditation, or other mindfulness practices. Technology is also supporting this detachment with gadgets ranging from bodily tracking devices (e.g., fitbits, RunKeeper), sentiment monitoring apps, brain scanners (e.g., EEG, fMRI), and even social media apps (e.g., Facebook, Instagram). The increased use of social media apps, however, may create a fake mask about ourselves which could induce depression in our lives. In fact, studies show that the use of multiple social media accounts is associated with depression and anxiety in users.13 So, what can we do to reconnect with our inner selves? We can take steps to listen to our senses, intuition, and body to reconnect within. The human body has the capacity to self-heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually by slowing down in our activities and taking time to listen to our inner voice. What is my body telling me? How do I feel in this particular moment? How can I make this day meaningful for myself? These may be some questions to ask internally. In fact, taking as little as 20 minutes daily to reconnect within by means of mindfulness meditation, can reduce anxiety and fatigue, and increase mindfulness and enhance attention.14 Creating a daily habit of checking in with ourselves has the power to make us feel grounded, in harmony, and connected within. This is how one begins cultivating balance, a life-long journey, as we start to reconnect with ourselves.
Balance and Sustainability
We live in a world filled with global sustainability challenges. We are experiencing natural disasters that threaten our economies, rising loss of flora and fauna biodiversity, broken food systems that promote hunger, war, and social injustices that limit social and economic growth, among others. Many of these global problems have roots in our lack of internal balance. Sustainability problems result from a rise of individualistic and opportunistic values, such as greed, selfishness, and self-perseverance. A person who cultivates balance is more likely to be respectful of others and the environment. Additionally, when a person is in a balanced state, they are more likely to be mindful of their actions related to consumption, labor, and time.15
By developing balance starting with ourselves, we can be sources of balance for our social groups and relationships. We have the potential to influence people’s lifestyles, positively affecting our families, friends, classmates, or colleagues. Our closest relationships are the ones who are going to be influenced the most by us because these relationships are more intimate. In other words, our work impacts the small scale, yet the impact is meaningful and scalable. If we apply this same concept to global sustainability issues, we might find it more efficient to work on the small scale than on the big picture (which is what we normally think of as the only potential solution to global issues). Working at the community level allows us to connect deeper to the people and the community that affects and is affected by an issue. We care about the people we know, and by having a sense of community and a sense of belonging to our projects, we are more likely to put our true selves into our work.
The intention of this piece is to bring attention to the unbalanced state of our society and ourselves. The society we live in today, along with modern technologies and resources, creates unbalance in our lives, and ultimately, in the state of global sustainability issues. Genuine human interactions and inner connection have been affected by this state of unbalance, which should be a wakeup call to reconnect internally. We started by explaining that balance is both a state and a process where one experiences awareness, mindfulness, non-attachment, peace, and contentment. Balance is a life-long journey, which requires a willingness to work toward it. And, as cultivation of inner balance is subjective to each individual, there is no guideline on how to do it. However, we have provided a set of four steps to aid in its cultivation: 1) healing ourselves, 2) mindful awareness of our states, 3) finding meaning in the good and the bad, and 4) connecting with our inner selves.
Cultivation of inner balance can have a positive impact in our communities, starting at the local level, and ultimately, in the world of sustainability. In sum, consumerism, over-reliance on external resources, and suppression of feelings and emotions only promote unbalance. If we focus our mind on those activities of minimalism (or consumption based on one’s needs), reliance on our inner selves, and allowance of flourishing feelings and emotions, we will be on the path to cultivating balance.
We thank the Happiness Lab at ASU, for instilling in us the values of healing, balance, and unconditional love, which are reflected in this piece. Most importantly, thank you for reading – the small step we take in opening ourselves to new perspectives influences those that revere our actions and choices.
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