For some people, environmental implications figure into one of life’s biggest decisions—whether or not to have a child.
According to philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau, “One is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something.” While the idea of making the world a better place is subjective; the salient point in Thoreau’s statement is to do something.
Everyday choices add up to a cumulative impact on the environment; actions such as recycling, using cloth grocery bags, or purchasing items made from sustainable resources that do not further threaten the habitats of animals in the wild. For example, choosing a candy bar made by a company concerned about orangutan conservation and deforestation due to non sustainable palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia can mean the difference between extinction and preservation of these charismatic primates. With education and awareness, we understand how seemingly small, everyday choices add up to big impact.
Bigger choices we face include: purchasing energy efficient appliances or fuel-efficient cars, taking public transportation, or planting trees that will cleanse the air of pollutants for years to come. For some people, environmental implications figure into one of life’s biggest decisions —whether or not to have a child.
An article written by Grist’s Senior Editor Lisa Hymas encouraged people to feel good about their choice to opt out of parenthood, thereby reducing their carbon footprint. The more goods we consume, the larger our carbon footprint. Not everyone who opts out of parenthood does so for environmental reasons. Whatever the reason, Hymas and countless other nonparents have something in common —they are targets. Targets of judgment and assumptions about what kind of people they are and the lives they are living. While the parenthood decision applies to both women and men, societal pressure is greatest for women whose lives continue to be viewed through the lens of motherhood. Women’s lives have undergone a complete overhaul in the past few decades; however, something very fundamental has not changed. There are still widely-held assumptions that all women desire motherhood—or that they “should” desire it—and those women who do not want motherhood are viewed as selfish or dysfunctional.
The 1960s and ’70s were a hotbed of environmental issues and consciousness-raising. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, released in 1962, caused a public outcry that led to the eventual banning of the pesticide DDT (1972) and the passing of the Endangered Species Act (1973). Paul Ehrlich founded the organization, Zero Population Growth, in 1968, an organization whose mission it was to communicate about the Earth’s finite resources. Amidst the controversy, in 1969, Stephanie Mills garnered national media attention when she declared in her college graduation commencement speech that she was “saddened” to announce that the best choice she could make to protect the environment was to not have children. Fast forward to 2010 and Lisa Hymas’s statement that she is “delighted” to say that the best thing she can do for the planet is to not have children. When contrasting those two statements, one might think that U.S. culture has evolved tremendously in four decades with regard to attitudes and assumptions about women’s reproductive choices; however, my research proves otherwise. While conducting interviews with 200 women across the U.S. (mothers and women who are not moms), I heard the following statements from women without children:
• From a 51-year-old woman: “When I was in my 20s, my grandfather said to me, ‘You better hurry up and get married; you don’t want to end up like your aunt!’” (Referring to her single, older, childless aunt whom this woman adored.)
• From a 21-year-old woman: “My grandpa asked me, ‘Where’s your ring? You can’t wait around forever!’ and I thought, can I finish college first?”
As a mother of three, I am acutely aware of the assumptions my teenage daughter faces. Ten years ago, I read Madelyn Cain’s book, The Childless Revolution, with a haunting interview. Quoting a woman Cain called “Donna,” who found she was infertile and could not become a mother, Donna said, “If I cannot become a mother, I may as well be dead.” During my interviews, I found a real-life example of Cain’s “Donna;” someone I’ve known my whole life, who expressed, “When I couldn’t get pregnant, I remember thinking—what’s life all about then?” For years, I have envisioned my own daughter’s future and considered, “What if my daughter does not want to be a mother someday? What if she’s unable to become a mom (through biology or circumstance)? Is there a way to protect her from the assumptions that bombard women from all manner of sources? My quest to answer these questions resulted in a book I’ve written (to be published later this year), The Female Assumption: The Impact on Women’s Lives when Motherhood is Viewed as a Mandate.
During my interviews/surveys with mothers, I heard a very high level of assumptions that their daughters will follow in their footsteps and become moms someday. One can assert that these assumptions are supported by statistics in a country where fertility rates are still very high despite a decline over the past few decades. What was alarming about my research was that 42 percent of the mothers I surveyed said that, if they heard their daughters voice ambivalence or disinterest in motherhood, that they would “urge them” toward motherhood by making statements such as, “Motherhood is an experience not to be missed,” “I never knew love until I became a mother,” and, “If she doesn’t become a mom, that means I can never become a grandmother.” Another 10 percent of the mothers said that they would sit their daughters down and question them about their disinterest in motherhood. For this group of mothers, I wondered, if they would ask “Why not?” would they also ask “Why?” if their daughters expressed their interest in motherhood? The answer lies in the assumptions one holds about females’ lives.
Among the women I interviewed who are not mothers, a majority of them grew up assuming that they would have children someday. Most of them struggled with external forces in order to preserve their inner selves; and said that they felt (or currently feel) that the pressure to become moms came from those closest to them. One woman commented, “As a teenager, I remember feeling sad when people told me I’d have kids someday.” Another woman commented, “My family and friends were always pushing me toward motherhood; I found new friends and disassociated with family ... problem solved.”
The reality is that an increasing number of women are choosing not to pursue motherhood and they are quite happy; except for the cajoling, intrusive, and sometimes caustic, comments they hear because they are not moms. Some women want to devote their lives to other goals; such as a woman I spoke to who said, “I want to be a hero,” when speaking about being a teacher for kids living in high-poverty, inner-city areas. She said, “These kids need great teachers.” Other women do not feel the maternal drive that our culture correlates with femininity. For example, one woman expressed, “I never felt drawn to motherhood; I am who I am.”
A high-profile woman who was never drawn to motherhood is Christine Walker, spouse of Robert Walker, President of the Population Institute. In an exclusive interview with Mrs. Walker for my book, she said that she had a “terrific childhood” (debunking the myth that a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother had a dysfunctional childhood); but that she didn’t like the “noise, crying, and clean-up” associated with childrearing. In Robert Walker’s words, “My wife and I chose to be ‘childfree’ long before the term was invented ... we like children, but we did not like them enough to take on the commitment of raising them.” According to Christine, “My husband and I are very close, I’m very fulfilled within my own self, we have no regrets.” Robert and Christine have been married almost four decades.
Not pursuing motherhood does not necessarily equate to denouncing it; however, this can be the perception. Whatever reason a woman has for opting out of motherhood, whether the decision is related to the environment, her own goals, or her likes/dislikes, must she justify her reason to those around her? Is it fair to judge a female’s character based upon her choice or ability to become a mom? A woman’s right to choose her own path to authenticity has been hard-won by strong females throughout history. Female activists and writers, dating back to the 1700s, have expressed ambivalence about motherhood. But, according to Stephanie Mills, “the discussion keeps disappearing.”
As a culture, we must ask ourselves, why are women’s voices suppressed or disregarded in the 21st century? Borrowing from biology, we call the forces that keep alive certain cultural morés “replicators.” For example, the cultural moré that “children are the ultimate celebration of life” is kept alive by society’s replicators. There are many magnificent ways to celebrate life; and many have nothing to do with children. Another cultural moré is that children fill a void in a previously-unfulfilled life. Again, there are a significant number of ways to live a fulfilled, happy life, to the exclusion of raising one’s own child.
As a mother of three, I am realistic enough to talk about the sacrifices of motherhood in a way that the majority of mothers do not. This does not dilute the love I feel for my children, nor does it hint at regret. My goal for my research and my book is to highlight the injustice of judging women on the basis of their choice to be mothers; and to highlight the need for all of society to update the scripts that are used with females ... rather than saying, “When you have children ...” instead say, “If you have children ...” There are many scripts that need updating when speaking to females about their lives—scripts that reflect more sensitivity and less judgment. My husband and I are raising our daughter to know that all we expect of her is to become a kind and self-sufficient human being. Beyond that, her choices are her own.
I advocate for each person who comes into contact with females, whether at home, school, or in the workplace, to use sensitivity when speaking about motherhood. Not all women desire it; their reasons for opting out of motherhood are as varied as the women themselves; and their reasons are no one’s business but their own.
Photo courtesy Sergio Vassio Photography, licensed under Creative Commons
What if there was a way to reduce the risk of many major diseases at the same time as helping improve your overall health, decreasing your weight and boosting your energy? And what if this treatment was simple to do and took only a few minutes each week?
Wait, it gets even better! What if this could be accomplished with no special equipment or training and it would cost absolutely nothing. You could do it any time and place you want--in fact, the vast majority of us have been doing it since the age of two.
Well, this health breakthrough actually exists. Taking a walk (or rolling on a bike or in wheelchair) for 30 minutes a day will cut your chances of dementia, depression, anxiety, diabetes, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and osteoporosis by at least 40 percent, according to a surge of recent medical research.
If more people adopted this easy habit, the United States alone could save as much as $100 billion a year in health care costs. And there’s growing recognition that our kids would do better in school, our neighborhoods would become friendlier and we’d all more happy. It’s the best way to enjoy the pleasure of public places, and to strengthen the spirit of the commons in your community.
Do the Right Thing
Growing numbers of people are ready to embrace the benefits of walking. Going for a walk is already Americans’ favorite activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and we walk six percent more on average than a decade ago. Walkable communities--where schools, shops and entertainment can be easily reached on foot--are a red-hot real estate trend. A new coalition of more than 500 local advocacy groups, America Walks, is pushing to make walking more convenient and safe across the country.
A national movement to promote walking was launched last year at the Walking Summit in Washington, DC, attended by more than 400 people from 41 states and 235 organizations, ranging from AARP and the NAACP to Marriott Inc. and the Sioux Falls (SD) Health Department.
The public clearly understands that walking is good for them and their families. A national survey commissioned by Kaiser Permanente found that 94 percent of Americans believe walking is good for our health, 91 percent believe it helps us lose weight and 85 percent that it reduces depression.
Americans will get even more encouragement to take a stroll this year when the US Surgeon General’s office releases an official Call to Action on Walking and Walkability, which highlights the mounting medical evidence that walking is one of the best ways to prevent disease and stay healthy. Yet the CDC reports that 52 percent of all Americans still don’t meet the CDC’s recommended minimum for physical activity: 30 minutes a day five days a week for adults, and one hour a day for kids.
To change this situation, more than two dozen leaders of the emerging walking movement gathered this spring in Washington, DC to work on a compelling message to encourage more Americans to walk.
The meeting--sponsored by Every Body Walk!, a collaborative of more than 100 organizations representing health care, business, government and citizen organizations--featured Jonah Berger, a Wharton School marketing professor who wrote the bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On.
What Stops Us From Walking?
“Everybody knows they should walk, so why aren’t they?” Berger asked, raising the question of how do we overcome barriers, both physical and psychological, that stop people from getting on their feet?
The public opinion survey sponsored by Kaiser Permanente (which powers the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and convened the Walking Summit) listed people’s most common reasons for not walking:
*Few places within walking distance of my home: 40 percent
*Don’t have time: 39 percent
*Don’t have the energy: 36 percent
*Lack of sidewalks or speeding traffic: 25 percent
*No one to walk with: 25 percent
*Crime in my neighborhood: 13 percent
How to Talk About Walking So Others Will Listen
Here’s a compilation of ideas to overcome these barriers coming out of the walking strategy meeting:
-Emphasize how the benefits of walking go beyond health
You’ll enjoy more vitality and energy. You’ll experience less stress and anxiety. You’ll look better and feel more creative. You’ll have more fun.
-Identify yourself as a regular walker
Literally, talk your walk. Tell people why you love it.
-Remember walkers are athletes too
There’s nothing pedestrian about walking 5K or10K. Some communities host walking marathons and half-marathons.
-Encourage people to start their day with a walk
They’ll feel invigorated all day, which reinforces the message that walking refreshes and energizes you.
-Suggest replacing driving to the gym with walks around the neighborhood
Save time and money while getting to know your neighbors.
How to Make Walking More Visible
-Wear Gold Shoe Laces
The African-American women’s walking organization Girl Trek, outfits members with gold shoelaces for their walking shoes to reveal themselves as regular walkers.
-Call on the Power of Art
Public art on the theme of walking serves as a reminder to take a stroll. Artists design crosswalks, trail signs and gateways to walking paths that capture people’s imaginations.
-Enlist high-profile local figures to schedule regular public walks.
People will don their sneakers for the chance to walk with a public official, athlete, entertainer or physician.
How to Encourage Others to Walk
-Plan a walk with friends & family
Suggest a walk first and then maybe a meal or drink or movie or round of cards
- Walk Every Wednesday
Around the country, people are organizing walks every Wednesday. (#WalkingWednesday on twitter).
-Suggest a Walking Meeting
Energize that afternoon discussion by doing it on foot. Do your next phone meeting standing up.
-Organize a Walking Club
Like a book club, but with water bottles instead of novels.
-Turn Your Coffee Break into a Stroll
Recruit co-workers for a refreshing trot out on the sidewalk or around the campus.
-Issue a Walking Challenge
Try some friendly competition by seeing who’s the first to walk a hundred miles. North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital sponsored a contest encouraging its employees to walk the distance from New York to Paris, with some winning a free trip to the French capital.
-Establish a Black Belt for Walkers
Many of us are drawn to compete with ourselves. Create awards for people hoofing it a half-hour for 365 days straight or striding the distance of the earth’s equator (24,901 miles).
How to Make Your Community More Walkable
-Post Signs Around Town Listing the Walking Times to Popular Destinations
Walk Raleigh, a fledgling group in Raleigh, North Carolina, hung up 27 handmade signs around downtown that became so popular the city posted their own official versions.
-Mark a Definite Walking Route
A walk after dinner is an enduring custom in Mediterranean and Latin American countries. Italians call it a passeggiata. People generally follow the same route through the heart of town, making it a social occasion as much as exercise regimen.
-Tell everyone: “If they can walk in LA, we can do it here.”
Famous for auto-cracy, Los Angeles actually harbors many walkers and hosts the Big Parade, an “epic public walk” that covers 40 miles and 100 public stairways over two days accompanied by food, music and art. Every town could create its own walking parade or festival.
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about how to improve community life. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. Hiswebsite www.JayWalljasper.com
Tapping into the healing effect of the placebo.
Western medicine has long viewed the placebo effect as a nuisance, getting in the way of knowing whether a drug is actually effective. But in the past couple of decades a few doctors—perhaps most notably Andrew Weil—have come to the defense of the placebo effect, calling it a low cost, effective method of healing with no toxic side effects.
“I think the placebo response is the greatest ally that a practitioner has,” Dr. Weil has said. “The best kind of medicine is that which elicits the maximum placebo response with a minimum direct impact on the physical body.” Now, reports Joseph Dispenza for Spirituality & Health (March/April 2014, article not online) researchers are investigating just how to do that.
A 2010 study led by Harvard’s Ted Kaptchuk found that placebos can work even when people know they’re taking a placebo. In the study, 40 people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) received a bottle clearly labeled “Placebo Pills.” They were told the placebos had previously calmed other patients’ IBS symptoms through a self-healing process. The other half received nothing, serving as the control group. Three weeks later, the experimental group reported twice as much relief as those who hadn’t received any treatment—a rate comparable to the best IBS drugs currently available.
How did it happen? It’s basically a self-fulfilling prophecy. By taking the placebo—and believing in its effectiveness—we are able to unlock a mind-body connection that triggers the body to heal itself. While the placebo effect certainly needs much more research, one thing is clear: The power of intention, mind, and body is greater than we’ve allowed ourselves to think.
Image by formatbrain, licensed under Creative Commons.
Turns out anyone can cultivate empathic skills—even psychopaths.
How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part ten of ten (part nine).
In daily life, calling someone a “psychopath” or a “sociopath” is a way of saying that the person is beyond redemption. Are they?
When neuroscientist James Fallon accidentally discovered that his brain resembled that of a psychopath—showing less activity in areas of the frontal lobe linked to empathy—he was confused. After all, Fallon was a happily married man, with a career and good relationships with colleagues. How could he be beyond redemption?
Additional genetic tests revealed “high-risk alleles for aggression, violence, and low empathy.” What was going on? Fallon decided he was a “pro-social psychopath,” someone whose genetic and neurological inheritance makes it hard for him to feel empathy, but who was gifted with a good upbringing and environment—good enough to overcome latent psychopathic tendencies.
This self-description found support in a study published this year by Swiss and German researchers, which showed education levels and “social desirability” seemed to improve empathy in diagnosed psychopaths. Another new study found that empathy deficits don’t necessarily lead to aggression.
It seems that psychopaths can be taught to feel empathy and compassion, though they have a disability that makes developing those skills difficult. When a team of researchers looked at the brain activity of psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands, for example, they discovered the predictable empathic deficits. But they also found that it made a difference in their brains to simply ask the criminals to empathize with others—hinting that empathy may be repressed rather than missing entirely in people classified as psychopaths. For some, at least, it may help a great deal to lift that repression.
Psychopathy remains an intractable mental illness and social problem—this year’s studies of treatment did not reveal a magic bullet that would turn psychopaths into angels. But we can take heart in the fact that if they can develop empathic skills, anyone can.
Image by Sean MacEntee, licensed under Creative Commons.
A “fat lady with a nutrition degree” urges us to make friends with food and our bodies
From incessant press coverage of the obesity epidemic to diet manuals masquerading as health magazines, Americans’ weight and eating habits seem to be under constant surveillance. Surrounded as we are by “thinspiration” and cupcake shops, it’s little wonder we’ve become a nation of disordered eaters, guilt-ridden about indulgences, confused about food, and searching desperately for the mythical experience of “normal eating.”
What a breath of fresh air, then, the fat-positive, food-positive attitude of Michelle Allison, The Fat Nutritionist. On her blog, the self-described “fat lady with a nutrition degree,” investigates the meeting points of food, body, mind, and culture, empowering readers to love themselves and whatever food they choose to eat. For Bitch (issue 60), Julie Smolinski writes that Allison “encourages readers to be independent, unashamed, and most of all, satisfied in their eating.”
Healthy relationships rarely come from loathing or suspicion. Relationships to our bodies and food are no exception. Allison grasps this and shouts it out. “I’m not here to give you a stern talking-to about your weight, or your eating habits, or your lack of exercise,” she writes. “But I can help you get to a friendly place with food and your body.”
Photo by Janine, licensed under Creative Commons.
How context influences our sense of right and wrong.
How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part nine of ten (part eight).
An out-of-control train will kill five people. You can switch the train onto another track and save them—but doing so will kill one person. What should you do?
A series of experiments published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that on one day you’ll divert the train and save those five lives—but on another you might not. It all depends on how the dilemma is framed and how we’ve been thinking about ourselves.
Through the train dilemma and other experiments, the study revealed two factors that can influence our moral decisions. The first involves how morality has been defined for you, in this case around consequences or rules. For example, when researchers asked participants to think in terms of consequences, some readily diverted the train, thus saving four lives. On the other hand, those who prompted to think in terms of rules (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”) let the five die. But that factor was influenced by another that depends on memory and whether your past ethical or unethical behavior is on your mind—a memory of a good deed might make you more likely to cheat, for example, if urged to think of consequences. It’s the complex interaction between those two factors that shapes your decision.
That wasn’t the only study published during the past year that revealed how susceptible we are to context. One study found that people are more moral in the morning than in the afternoon. Another study, cleverly titled “Hunger Games,” found that when people are hungry, they express more support for charitable giving. Yet another experiment discovered that thinking about money makes you more inclined to cheat at a game—but thinking about time keeps you honest.
The bottom line is that our sense of right and wrong is heavily influenced by seemingly trivial variables in memory, in our bodies, and in changes within our environment. This doesn’t necessarily lead us to pessimistic conclusions about humanity—in fact, knowing how our minds work might help us to make better moral decisions
Image by Mark Fischer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Employees are motivated by giving as well as getting.
How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part eight of ten (part seven).
Over the past two decades, work satisfaction has declined, while time spent at work has significantly increased. Not a good combination!
Would paying people more money help? Some studies have shown that rewarding employees for their hard work and late nights at the office with a bonus will make things a little better and quiet dissatisfaction. But in September, through the collaborative research of Lalin Anik, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, Elizabeth W. Dunn, and Jordi Quoidbach, we learned that employee bonuses might have the most positive effects when they’re spent on others. The researchers suggested an alternative bonus offer that has the potential to provide some of the same benefits as team-based compensation—increased social support, cohesion, and performance—while carrying fewer drawbacks.
Their first experiment focused on broad, self-reported measures of the impact of prosocial bonuses on an employee’s job satisfaction. They were either given a bonus to spend on charity or were not given a bonus at all. Those who gave to charities reported increased happiness and job satisfaction. The second experiment was conducted in two parts—both focused on “sports team orientation” by looking at the difference between donating to a charity or a fellow employee—and attempted to see if these improved actual performance. In the first part of the experiment, these participants were given $20 and told to spend it on a teammate or on themselves over the course of the week. In the second part of this experiment, they were instructed to spend $22 on themselves or on a specified teammate over the course of the week. Both of these experiments found more positive effects for givers than those who spent the $22 on themselves.
This collaborative research indicates that prosocial bonuses can benefit both individuals and teams, on both psychological and “bottom line” indicators, in both the short and long-term. So when you receive your bonus this year, you might want to think twice before buying those pair of shoes you’ve been dying for, instead consider spending it on someone else—because, according to this research, you’ll probably be much happier and more satisfied with your job.
Ed. note: The results of this study, while interesting, are not meant to imply that we shouldn’t be working fewer hours overall, or eliminating meaningless work altogether..
Photo by Isaac Bowen, licensed under Creative Commons.