How Can I Be Happy When The World Is Such A Horrible Place?

Illustration by Rob Shields, made for Designers Against Child Slavery.

“Hi Gala,
How do you stay so optimistic even though the world around us has so many problems? Everyday I see awful things on the news (war, famine, class inequality, etc), and even my work is slowly taking a toll on me. I’m an environmental scientist, and it is both sad and scary to see just how much of a mess the world is in.
I’ve been trying to focus on the smaller things instead — Look how nice the trees outside are! Look how awesome this cake is! Look at all of the postcards I just got in the mail! And so on. But it’s becoming increasingly hard to do this.
I used to be a much happier person when I was younger and more oblivious to these sorts of things! Is this just a normal part of growing up?

It’s certainly easier to ignore the bleakness of the world when you’re younger. There are reasons why the old envy the young, & it often has very little to do with mobility! Naïveté & youthful optimism are wonderful things, & they can empower us to take on enormous tasks with tremendous enthusiasm.

I’ve noticed the same thing as you, though. I don’t know whether I’ve been in NYC too long, or whether it’s a natural part of aging, but these days, I find it increasingly difficult to ignore the injustices all around us. Sometimes when I walk down the street & see homeless veterans begging for change — when everyone ignoring them is clutching an iPhone while slurping an enormous Starbucks beverage — it makes my heart hurt. Really, the only solution for this is to do as much good as you can.

I recently started working with New York Cares, an incredible organisation of volunteers throughout the five boroughs. After you’ve attended one of their orientation sessions — which lasts about an hour & is incredibly painless! — you’re able to browse through their site of volunteer opportunities, & sign up for whatever interests you. You can practically do anything you like, whether it’s reading stories to children, helping immigrants strengthen their English skills, walking dogs or feeding people in a soup kitchen. The best part is that all the placements are really fun!

My first New York Cares session was at PS 140 M-Nathan Straus, a school in the Lower East Side, doing something called “Art Explorers”. Officially, Art Explorers is “an innovative program that uses games and art projects to promote positive self-esteem, team building & communication skills.” Unofficially, it’s a BLAST! I spent the afternoon with an excitable bunch of 7 year olds, making hand turkeys complete with googly eyes, loose feathers & psychedelic pom-poms. I made one too, & brought it home to stick on our magnetic front door. (Don’t tell anyone!)

Volunteering my time (& enthusiasm!) is one way that I choose to contribute to the world. It’s a way that I can “show up” & be present. If I can help a 7 year old girl with her spelling & make her smile with my pink hair, or if a woman reads an article on this blog that helps her, then I think I’ve done something good. It makes it easier to deal with those difficult things we’re all faced with. It also makes you realise that if you see injustice or unfairness or sadness, you can get in there & DO SOMETHING about it!

We don’t have to sit around & watch the news & feel maudlin about what is going on. We are not helpless. We can ALL contribute something positive. The only thing that’s required is your own willingness to make a change.

As we get older we are presented with a choice. We can choose to grow into cynical, cranky, distrustful curmudgeons, or we can decide to be strong, brave & happy. We can choose to focus on the horrible, ugly parts of life, or we can put our attention onto — & our energy into — the good things. As my friend Mike Dooley says, “thoughts become things”, & it is an irrefutable fact that we get more of what we focus our attention on.

It’s easy to be miserable. You only need to look around you to see how true this is! Conversely, being happy requires constant effort. You might not hit the mark every day — & few of us do — but you have to keep trying.

Being thankful & staying in a state of gratitude as often as possible is a major part of the happiness puzzle. I used to think that was all there was to it, but I’m discovering that it’s not. Actively devoting your time to a cause that is bigger than you is another massive piece of the riddle. Whether it’s helping children or elderly people, cleaning up the environment or educating teenagers, this idea of HELPING OTHERS gives our lives deeper meaning, & ultimately, more happiness.

Here’s a fake statistic for you: 9 out of 10 billionaire rockstars polled said that the act of becoming a billionaire rockstar didn’t bring any more meaning or happiness to their life. Okay, I know that’s a fake statistic, but anyone who has been famous, wealthy or good lookin’ will tell you that these things don’t make you any happier! There’s a reason why the most successful people (see: Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt, Russell Simmons & Sir Richard Branson) donate their time, money & energy to bigger causes. It’s not because they want a tax write-off or good press — they do it because it brings meaning to their lives.

Photo by Joey Lawrence.

I know that sometimes it can feel hopeless. Short of single-handedly destroying a monstrous Earth-bound asteroid, none of us are ever going to save the world, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope! It doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice our lives to a million charities or people in need, either. The best thing is to choose a few causes which really mean something to you, & then figure out the best way to help.

If you’re cashed up, maybe a financial donation is the smartest way for you to contribute. If you’re looking for a job, perhaps volunteering a few hours a week will bring you some joy. If you have a particular skill or talent, why not ask around & see if there’s some way you could use that to benefit others?

Volunteering & helping other people isn’t just for bleeding hearts or celebrities with a lot of dough. When you match up with the right cause, it’s SERIOUSLY fun, it makes you feel SUPER-good, & it does SO much for others. (I mean, I got to make a hand turkey yesterday! It was awesome!)

Illustration by Raphaël Vicenzi.

The truth is there are always going to be terrible things & sad stories, ranging in seriousness from war, senseless violence & abuse down to ill-fitting underpants & terrible room-mates. Switch off the news if it’s too much for your soul to take, & start improving the lives of the people around you. There are so many ways you can help your friends, family, neighbourhood, city, state or country, & sitting around feeling bad, miserable or guilty is not one of them.

We have to turn up in the world, & be bold enough to ask, “How can I help?” It comes down to doing the best we can with what we’ve got, doing the right thing as often as possible, & being kind. Don’t close yourself off from other people; stay open & always do what your heart is telling you to do.

If you see someone who looks hungry, offer to buy them a sandwich. If you have a spare coat in your closet, donate it to someone in need or even organise a coat drive in your area. If you know someone who will be alone these holidays, invite them over for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

It’s so simple, but your actions can help change the course of someone else’s life… & make you smile in the process.