Developing self determination
Developing self determination
Greta Thunberg’s inspiring activism may pressure reluctant politicians into meaningful steps on climate change. She is rightly a role model for many young people around the globe and it was hard not to admire her bravery and eloquence, when she said to global leaders at Davos in January, “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”
However, fear and panic can be toxic, and while it may spur some like Thunberg to activism, it may simply paralyse others. I am not alone in worrying that fear is not generally a helpful motivator, and can lead to apathy and despair; in 2017 the American Psychological Association reported that our psychological responses to climate change, like conflict avoidance, helplessness and resignation, were growing. So much so that climate psychiatry is emerging as a new specialism for mental health professionals. As BBC journalist and emerging science researcher Britt Wray notes in her 2019 TED Talk, they are getting work at a time when some high schoolers don’t want to apply to university any longer, because they can’t foresee a future for themselves.
That 1.4 million school students went on strike in March to protest about climate change shows they feel they have few other options left; Wray describes this as students around the world … “screaming for change in the piercing voice of despair.”
‘Despair’ is, I suggest, not what we want, and it not itself likely to lead to sustainable change. Our challenge remains to educate students so they know the facts and to guide them so they develop energetic activism rather than slip into paralysed apathy.
At UWCSEA, as we discuss how we can best equip our students to deal with what sometimes seems like a tsunami of distressing news and events, we have found that activism and wellbeing both rely on three things (taken from Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory)
1. Autonomy: the feeling one has choice and willingly endorsing ones behaviour
2. Competence: the experience of mastery and being effective in ones activity
3. Relatedness: the need to feel connected and belongingness with others
There’s a lot to say about these, which were initially identified over 30 years ago by Ryan and Deci in their impressively persuasive body of work. And if these ideas seem suspiciously like the Dan Pink’s from Drive or Martin Seligmann’s from Flourish, that’s no coincidence. Ryan and Deci’s work pre-dates and underlies these two much more well-known authors, and many others, who have made their own versions of these ideas accessible to a wide audience.
These abstract principles can very effectively guide thinking and actions on very practical issues. They are how we can feel able to act in meaningful ways in the world; by connecting with like-minded people; by being competent to effect change; and by having the autonomy to direct our own lives. These are foundational to both action and wellbeing.
As I’ve explored the topic of wellbeing, I’ve come to see this issue of ‘activism’ as intimately linked to ‘wellbeing’. Neither quality is one you can seek directly; in fact both emerge from the three underlying elements. We describe the way we deliberately attend to the cultivation of these principles in our community as the UWCSEA Culture of Care and Wellbeing.
Over the previous school year, the leadership teams have clarified and made explicit our thinking. And even after a few weeks of this school year we were already seeing the power of these three principles. As the year progresses, we continue to look for opportunities to embed these principles into life on campus, reviewing and tweaking as we go. For now, I am hopeful they may provide an effective way of addressing twin goals of wellbeing and activism, but in an optimistic way.
Watch this space.
Thanks to Ellie Alchin for making the link between self-determination theory and activism.
Nick’s blog, On Education, shares his thinking and ideas inspired by his role as High School Principal and Deputy Head of East Campus at UWCSEA in SIngapore.
Barclay, E. (2019) Photos: kids in 123 countries went on strike to protect the climate. Vox
Neuding, P. (2019) Self-Harm Versus the Greater Good: Greta Thunberg and Child Activism. Quillette
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.
Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2017). Self-Determination Theory Guilford Press
The Guardian Our house is on fire Fri 25 Jan 2019
Wray, B. (2019) How climate change affects your mental health. TED
University of Rochester Medical Center, https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/community-health/patient-care/self-determination-theory.aspx 11 Dec 2019