4 Ways to Overcome Despair

I don’t know many activists or changemakers who don’t sometimes feel sad. The more we expose ourselves to exploitation and cruelty toward people and animals; the more we learn about climate change and the rapid extinction of species; the more we see corruption in politics and greed in business, the greater the likelihood that despair will creep in.

Some turn their despair outward into rage, which can too often damage relationships, turn off potential allies, promote polarization, and thereby prevent solutions. Some find that despair leads to depression, undermining action, which can turn into a positive feedback loop: more despair leading to more depression leading to less action leading to more despair.

To face and overcome the periodic despair I feel, I have found four things that work well for me. I hope they’re helpful for you:

    1. Act. As Joan Baez once said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” If you despair about a problem or crisis in the world, do something. Choose actions that will lead to positive, sustainable, lasting solutions; that use your best skills; and that you enjoy doing. You’ll find friends and support in the process; see the positive effects of your efforts, and feel buoyed by the capacity of action to create change.

    2. Rejuvenate: Get outside and feed your soul with the beauty of this extraordinary planet. Sleep under the stars. Walk in the woods. Grab a pair of binoculars and a magnifying glass and look closely at the amazing world into which we are so blessed to have been born. Play with friends and family. Make joyful, awe-inspiring, and belly-laughing experiences part of every week, if not every day.

    3. Remember: Keep the long view in mind. Humans do not have the capacity to destroy this planet. We may make a mess of things; we may take down half of all species on Earth; we may cause tremendous suffering; we may make ourselves extinct; but we cannot put an end to the grand unfolding of Earth. It will eventually recover from whatever we do, as it has from every massive die off in its 4 billion year history. When I remember this, I’m more able to act with serenity.

    4. Read Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. This exhaustively researched book provides ample evidence that we are living in less violent and less discriminatory times than ever before in recorded human history. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, and soothing tome that proves Martin Luther King, Jr.’s belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”


    Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.


    Image courtesy of MervC via Creative Commons.


    Loo Samantha
    Loo sam3 years ago


    Heidi Aubrey
    Heidi Aubrey3 years ago

    We must escape our planet before the sun begins to die.

    Heidi Aubrey
    Heidi Aubrey3 years ago

    I completely agree with no matter what we do to the planet, it will eventually recover. Only if we become, ourselves extinct. This is the part that makes me sad.

    Evolution will begin again,it is possible(though unlikely), human kind will arise again. BUT, we will not acheive the necessary knowledge to escape our planet before our sun makes this planet completely dead as it begins to die. This will happen in about a billion yrs.

    It took about 2.5 billion yrs of evolution for us to be here today. It will be faster this(2nd) time though, since the atmosphere will still be primarily oxygen to begin with and we will already have water and at least plant life to start with.

    Without the scientific knowledge that we have attained to this day and allowed to continually progress before the sun begins to die, the entire human race will become extinct forever along with the death of Earth.

    Sue Matheson
    Sue Matheson3 years ago


    Tim C.
    Tim C.3 years ago

    Thanks Zoe

    Tim C.
    Tim C.3 years ago

    Frans Badenhorst

    Nimue Pendragon

    I disagree, Liliana, hence my earlier comment. We do not know what will happen after we have finished killing everything, wrecking this planet, and making our species extinct.You and the writer say that no matter what happens the planet will recover and keep going round the sun; everyone is entitled to their opinion, however, if that is the "don't care" attitude of all, there is certainly no hope for the future.

    Connie O.
    ConnieAway O.3 years ago

    Thank you for the insights. I find that giving back, whether volunteering or monetary contributions, always raises my spirits. I try to do as much as I can.

    Mary B.
    Mary B.3 years ago

    I've often been puzzeled by that idea of what I most dislike in others is in me since it may very well be a false assumption. But I can understand that I probably couldn't recognize in others anything I had also previously done and already grew beyond. Just as those who are not yet at my stage of understanding don't seem able to comprehend what I mean.They can only relate to common ideas at their own level.

    Marcel Elschot
    Marcel Elschot3 years ago