“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones” Confucius

When faced with the pressing problems of the day, like pandemics, poverty, hunger, a damaged environment, etc., it is easy to fall prey to feelings of helplessness and be overwhelmed by the seeming insignificance of one’s own contribution to finding solutions. Our efforts may seem like tiny drops in the ocean. Many that feel this way just give up and do nothing, paralysed into inaction.

Christopher Haylett (Sixpence) notes: “Everyone, at some point or another, has had their generosity limited in some way by this ironic effect. I even caught myself following this line of thinking a week ago when I came across two very talented street performers. I reached into my pocket to see what cash I had to contribute for their time, discovered I only had two bucks and put it back in my pocket. That’s when I realized the obvious: two dollars from me is still more than zero from me. So I took those two dollars back out of my pocket and dropped them in the performers’ guitar case. This failure to give just because we feel we can’t contribute “enough” can kill great movements before they can even begin and it’s a well-known issue in the realm of fundraising”.

The psychology that describes this is called “futility thinking”. Researchers created a study to illustrate this concept, where they found that a fundamental principle of psychophysics is that people’s ability to discriminate change in a physical stimulus diminishes as the magnitude of the stimulus increases. They told study participants that refugees in a camp needed aid and that monetary donations could save lives. In one instance, participants were told they could save 1 500 refugees out of 5 000. In another instance, they were told they could save 1 500 refugees out of 10 000. Participants were more willing to rescue 1 500 refugees from the group of 5 000 than the group of 10 000 because their contribution felt more significant. Helping 30% of the refugees sounds much better than just 15%. At the end of the day, however, 1 500 people would have been saved regardless of the percentage.

When faced with huge issues, we often view our input as insignificant. Individual and collective effort, however, can produce great results and contribute meaningfully to the process of finding potentially sustainable solutions. For example, touching on the possibility of collective effort:

  • Collective effort such as crowd-funding – a million people each giving $10 goes a really long way to solving a problem (e.g. creating sustainable work opportunities within an impoverished community)
  • Collective effort such as a demonstration of care – all being encouraged to get involved in a specific project (e.g. a government declaring a certain day a public holiday for every citizen to be involved in picking up plastics on beaches, in rivers and streams and from gutters within/close to their respective communities)
  • Collective effort such as an offering of compassion – reaching out to those who find themselves in less-fortunate positions than the rest of us (e.g. knitting and/or donating blankets to the homeless, especially for the winter months)

Fixing feelings of futility requires a change of mind-set. With the grave and mostly endemic problems that the world is facing currently, collective effort needs to be encouraged to tackle the finding of sustainable solutions. Leaving a problem for someone else to handle exacerbates issues. The world needs your creative input now. You can fix your feelings of futility.

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