There is a lot of suffering in human society, and plenty of well-intentioned efforts to alleviate that suffering. But sometimes, a key component goes missing from the problem-solving efforts- personal well-being and grounded happiness. Social workers are familiar with this concept in the form of “self-care for the caregiver.” Social workers work to maintain their own self-care to ensure they are stable reference points for the often unstable clients they are helping. Like a gravitational field, social workers provide a reference point of stability that guides often wide-orbiting clients back in to a more balanced center.
In a similar way, all of the great social or spiritual leaders (e.g. the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa), radiate or radiated a calming and clear presence allowing those around them to feel that everything would be alright, even if it wasn’t at that moment, it would be someday. That calming presence allowed people to face extraordinarily difficult circumstances that otherwise would have stopped them. It gave them the encouragement to keep moving forward, keep trusting their intuition, and keep working past the fear and challenges into better possibilities. This is basic empowerment, but it’s worth reiterating. Without it, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Indian Independence Movement, and countless others, would have stalled in discouragement, unrest and in-fighting.
It’s that supportive, “you’re going to be fine,” way of being with others, that many people tackling “wicked problems” forget to employ as the very foundational way in which they approach the world. As leaders, when we radiate happiness and calm, we allow those around us to face their problems with a dose of that same attitude and then achieve greater success.
Since, ultimately, large-scale social problems are simply the mass collections of individual human challenges, problems can be addressed by shifting the mindsets of individuals into further empowerment. For example, environmental destruction can be seen as individuals’ inability to conceptualize environmental change and alter behavior accordingly, disease epidemics can be seen as many human bodies individually needing greater care, poverty can be seen as many individuals unable to free themselves from institutional power dynamics, and so on. It is the pieces, happy or unhappy, empowered or victimized, that make the whole. So as designers approaching social change, it is us up to us to generate happiness as a means to allow others the encouragement to face their challenges and keep moving forward, knowing it will get better over time.
You can feel it in your own life- at times of overwhelm or unrest, taking action is more challenging. At times of joy and calm, taking action is satisfying and easy. The more we can surround individual humans, who are part of these wicked problems, with an atmosphere of appreciation, collaboration, and playfulness, the more we are able to find the threads of yarn within us, and within them, that ultimately unravel these dense, challenging problems.
So that’s my goal for the coming weeks- infuse all that I do, and all that I give, with joy. Realize that happiness, especially in abundance, is an improving force on the world. And each moment we are happy is a gift to the rest of the world. Here’s to being kind to each other as we do this work, and to helping as many individual others as possible (who in aggregate form these wicked problems), to achieve that state as well- in whatever forms they prefer.
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