The key areas that contribute most significantly to our individual carbon footprint (you can calculate your own—and see how different actions will lower it—here) are transportation habits, home energy usage, shopping frequency and diet. It turns out that the behavioral changes in those categories that have an environmental impact also improve your mental health.
Here are some practical ways you can support the planet and do your mind a major favor along the way.
How you use energy at home
Fact: It turns out that even those changes we make that no one can see still help us to see ourselves in a more positive light, which can increase the positive emotions that we feel. And this first change falls in that bucket: there’s a great deal of wasted energy in our homes that can be curbed. In fact, The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the cost of plugged-in but not used devices (“phantom” electricity) is about $165 per household, which amounts to about 44 million tons of carbon dioxide—4.6% of our total residential electricity generation.
What to try: Homeowners can make a big dent in home-energy use by taking a few measures that will also save money in the long-term, such as installing a smart thermostat or purchasing energy-efficient appliances. And both owners and renters can work to be mindful about turning the lights off when you leave a room, and unplugging appliances and lamps when you’re not using them, or using smart power strips. The free smartphone app Dr. POWER can help you identify which appliances are the biggest culprits of phantom electricity.
How you get around
Fact: According to the EPA, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation account for the single largest contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, at about 28 percent. But one study showed that by making a more sustained commitment to bike travel, urban centers could help cut carbon emissions for their transportation by 11 percent.
What to try: Switch out at least half of your typical car commutes for bike rides, on foot or via metro (which usually involves a little extra walking and stair climbs). Opting for eco-friendly transportation means you’ll be doing your part to cut back on those fuel emissions while also staying active, which releases feel-good endorphins, and can help to manage stress. With D.C. having 100 miles of bike lanes and trails already, and expecting an increase of 20 miles of protected bike lanes by next year, the opportunity to safely and ease of getting around on two wheels should only improve in the future.
How much you shop
Fact: The inner satisfaction that we derive from overconsumption of consumer goods is short-lived. In one survey commissioned by Greenpeace, researchers found that while around two-thirds of shoppers feel satisfied after buying fashion goods, a majority say this excitement wears off after a day or less — and a third reported that they feel “even emptier” after shopping excitement fades away. This is because when we shop we get a dopamine surge, and once the allure fades, so does our “shopper’s high”.
What to try: Rather than splurge on a new pair of shoes or other stuff you might not need, why not set a calendar reminder to donate to your favorite environmental cause each month? Every time you get the notification, you can “shop around” to find the organization you wish to support (this is a great list to start with), and all the while you’ll be activating two key areas of your brain: the mesolimbic pathway, which provides that feel-good dopamine release — as well as the subgenual area of the brain, which is the same area that lights up when we have social attachment, meaning it could help you feel less lonely.
How you eat
Fact: Plant-based foods have a climate impact that’s 10 to 50 times smaller than animal-derived ingredients. So, reducing your dairy and meat consumption is one of the single most impactful things that you can do to lower your individual carbon footprint. This is because while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calorie energy for humans, they also use the vast majority (83%) of farmland and produce the majority (60%) of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Keep in mind: there are ways to still eat meat and not harm the planet.)
What to try: If you aren’t already eating a plant-based diet, a step as simple as adopting “Meatless Monday” can help you to incorporate mindful eating into your life. You might have heard about mindful eating as a Buddhist practice, where you eat more slowly and savor each sensation of the meal. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the practice also involves reflection on your food choices and how they impact the environment. (And don’t forget, when you support Vegetable and Butcher, you can opt for all vegan meals to get you started on a meatless diet.)