Aristotle defined the human being as the only rational being. Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am.” Later Kant affirmed, “Dare to think.” And the Enlightenment managed to elevate reason to the foundation and original cause of all knowledge. In this way emotions have remained in the well of scientific oblivion for more than 2000 years. Fortunately, advances in science are pulling emotions out of this pit. Antonio Damasio, a brilliant neuroscientist, teaches us that emotions are at the base of all knowledge and that the brain works by handling all data in an interconnected way. In fact, the latest studies show that emotions guide behavior, trace the paths that shape the ways of thinking, reacting, making decisions and connecting with the world. Emotions are the ones that accompany us in the way we inhabit the world. A changing world that now plunges us into one of the most powerful nightmares, that of a warming planet with less and less room for the current civilization.
In these moments of uncertainty regarding the future, the investigations of the Nobel Prize D. kahneman next to a. Tversky about decision-making processes, can be of great help. By studying human behavior, they obtain data that does not corroborate the traditional theory that people always act by weighing all the options and choosing the one that brings them the most benefits. On the contrary, his research shows that human thought is less rational and more intuitive than previously believed. They discover that there is a voluntary thought system, intentional but that requires a lot of effort and mental resources, and a second, intuitive and involuntary system that automatically emerges in the minds. These heuristics or mental shortcuts to make decisions are plagued by cognitive biases, which are nothing more than alternatives that have been followed in the past and that are followed to solve new situations. These heuristics give rise to mechanical and unconscious ways of acting linked more to emotional content than to true rational deliberation.
We know, we know and we have the data: the climate crisis has been caused by the behaviors and activities that human beings have maintained for centuries. But we have almost no data on what are the emotions that support these lifestyles and how they are connected with pro-environmental actions. Can emotions predict behaviors relevant to the environment? What emotions relate us to climate change? Emotions that lead us to make decisions on a daily basis, that generate different states of mind, that influence our health, that impact the economy or that lead to social activism.
In an unpublished and preliminary study (see footnote), a questionnaire was designed to delve into the relevant emotions and discover what thoughts and behaviors accompany them.
The sample consisted of a total of 25 people. 56% were women. The majority percentage of participation by age, 48%, was made up of people between 45 and 64 years of age. According to the completed studies, 44% of the sample said they had a university degree. Data was also collected by areas of work, with the same percentage, 44%, being the people who said they work in the public administration or for private companies. Monthly income was taken into account, with 20 to 25% being represented by all income brackets from 1,000 euros to more than 2,500 euros per month.
In this study, the most frequent emotion was sadness. Up to 72% of the people interviewed said they feel sad when they think about climate change. It is followed by helplessness, anger, worry, hope, rage, frustration, fear, disappointment, guilt, and outrage. Eleven emotions that can have a decisive influence on how you feel and how you think about climate change. Likewise, it is observed that sex, income level and age modulate the capacity and frame the norms of what is allowed, appropriate or more frequent to feel. Most of the women interviewed say they feel hopeful, while less than 30% of the men mention this feeling. Hope is a conviction that the desired goal can be achieved at some point. Possess hope in technology, education or youth seems to be essential to maintain the commitment to a livable future.
Sadness is a feeling that reflects the loss of something irreplaceable, of incalculable value. The sadness, is related to pain, resignation and depression. It must be said that it is a necessary step to evaluate and face the new situation that we are experiencing, but it is far from the necessary impulse to undertake actions in favor of the planet.
There is a tendency to feel more fear the lower the income level of the people interviewed. He fear It fulfills an essential function since it prevents the danger that threatens survival. In this sense, climate change represents an existential fear whose causes are rooted in the projection of the future. The people interviewed say they are afraid “of leaving our children an uncertain future”, the impacts that climate changes have on health and the perception of lack of protection on the part of institutions and governments. This result could be related to the research which suggest that those people who have lower incomes and therefore also with fewer resources at their disposal to have solutions show more intense emotions.
Anger was an emotion named by 56% of the people interviewed. This result informs us that an important objective for the person has been blocked and that the difficulties to achieve it are increasing. The passive, negligent and indolent attitudes of the States and International Organizations are the main causes of anger. The data suggests that with age, anger and worry increase. Several research have verified that when climate change is perceived to have direct impacts on daily life, the most difficult emotions to manage, such as fear, sadness or anger, increase.
The data indicates, however, that it is the people who express emotions such as worry, anger, rage or indignation who make larger commitments to individual environmental protection practices and are the ones who support mitigation policies. of climate change with greater determination. The emotions and action tendencies that have emerged from the research require work with broader layers of the population that incorporate a greater diversity of social, economic, and ideological profiles. In this way, the prevailing emotional states and dispositions could be described with greater precision with the aim of supporting both adaptation and mitigation interventions against climate change.
The emotional intelligence it can provide the framework in which to organize emotional responses, since, although some emotions are not better than others, there are emotions that can be more adaptive than others and that can lead to making better decisions. Mayer and salovey define emotional intelligence as a skill that allows incorporating emotions to improve thinking and also action. This makes it easier to adapt to personal conditions and life situations. Being aware of the connection between emotions, thoughts and actions, according to the theory of emotional intelligence, is related to the ability to manage problems and overcome the ambiguities of Western civilization. Recognizing and learning from our climatic emotions, moving through them and understanding where they come from and where they take us is a way to cultivate the skills that underlie emotional well-being.
Discovering and analyzing the links between emotions and actions related to climate change is also an obligation of the institutions. Facilitating transitions and ending the dilemmas that citizens are experiencing is a pending task for administrations and governments. Enriching these organizations with better emotional skills can only lead to a process of raising awareness of the indispensable need for care. The responsibility of joint, solidary and collective action must lead to raising the levels of physical and mental well-being of all the parties involved, not just a few of them. Individual action is essential, but it must be driven by firm policies that make it possible to restore the balance of the planet and all its forms of life.
The concept of eco-anxiety is being heard and read more and more frequently. Echoanxiety is the chronic fear of suffering a cataclysm that occurs when observing the apparently irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for the future of oneself and the next generations. More than half of children and young people under the age of 25 experience negative emotions regarding the climate crisis, and more than 45% of them assure that these feelings negatively affect your daily life.
Ecoanxiety is closely linked to the concept of solastalgia, understood as the set of psychological disorders that occur in an individual or a population after destructive changes in its territory. Solastalgia, which reveals our close connection with the environmentaffects people who have already suffered the consequences of a natural disaster and who, as various studies reveal, are therefore 4% more likely to suffer from a mental illness and suffer from post-traumatic stress or depression.
The effects of eco-anxiety can be addressed by looking for the positive side of the circumstances, working on the emotional regulation of one’s own impulses and developing resilience to face adversity. It is key to take some form of action, starting with learning about environmental problems, and raising awareness and making others aware. Important among the solutions is to review our way of life, seeking the environmental sustainability of our activities. Reduce consumption, recycle, lead a healthy life, with a healthy diet and betting on mobility, pick up garbage and a long etcetera that most of us know well. To manage the emotions generated by climate change in a positive way, we cannot sit still and wait. You have to think and do. Just feeling can be lethal.
Emotional intelligence helps to deal with the intense and often unpleasant emotions that information about the climate emergency generates and to mitigate the uncertainty about the changes that must be implemented in lifestyles to achieve a sustainable world. A sentimental and emotional education is essential to transform ourselves and transform society into a more just one, which takes into consideration all living beings on the planet and allows it to change its collision course with planetary limits. Indispensable for the best in each one of us to come out while that unavoidable change takes place.
Note. The results presented are part of the final master’s project “Emotions in the context of the climate crisis” carried out by Carolina Belenguer Hurtado in 2022 within the Master Emotional Intelligence: scientific study from Psychology, Neuroscience and Health, taught by the Psychobiological Institute from Elizabeth I University.