Pro-social purpose & serving wider society: Research & practice to address climate change

By Kiran K Bains, November 2019

Greta Thunberg recently tweeted:

Climate change and social isolation and loneliness pose serious threats to human health, and particularly in the case of the former, to our survival and that of our planet. These issues are an ever-present and growing reality for those who already experience greater vulnerability and marginalisation due to age, poverty, racial inequality, sexuality, gender identity and disability [1, 2]. However, for those with greater privilege in the West, climate change in particular may generally be an abstract reality, with adverse consequences for lived experience only just beginning to be felt.

In 2016, health psychologists were called to engage meaningfully in addressing the realities of climate change and social isolation and loneliness at a keynote lecture at the European Health Psychology Society conference [3]. Yet, there remains a shortage of research and practice by our profession in these areas. To address these issues effectively, health psychologists need to work at individual, group and community levels, using an interdisciplinary approach with allied professions (including other psychologists).

An individualistic approach alone masks the disproportionate impact that Western societies have in contributing to our global carbon footprint due to high consumption of goods often produced by developing countries [4] and use of air travel [1]. Two of the key drivers of accelerating deforestation in the Amazon are Western demand for beef and mined gold for smart devices, for example. Individualistic approaches would also be impractical to reduce social isolation and loneliness, as firstly, these issues disproportionately impact those with greater vulnerability and marginalisation and, secondly, social and environmental changes are key to facilitate meaningful social connections [2]. For both issues, fostering community and civic participation is important. However, it can be difficult to find unifying concepts that enable change at all three levels (individual, group and community).

My recent paper aimed to expand health psychology research and practice into exploring how cultivating prosocial purpose might help us address climate change as well as social isolation and loneliness [5]. The concept of prosocial purpose was of interest, firstly, because it can underlie individual efforts to change lifestyle to address pressing social concerns and, secondly, because purpose is thought to be an important attribute for collective wellbeing. In a social context dominated by discourses privileging self-oriented achievement and wellbeing, it may be helpful to use an approach that outlines the proximal physical and mental health gains for individuals alongside benefits for wider communities from prosocial behaviour.

Health psychology (and psychology in general) needs to be braver in challenging the status quo … alongside the children and activists who are already showing such courage.

Equally important, however, is cultivating prosocial purpose to improve community and civic engagement. Cultivating prosocial purpose may help communities to create green spaces using ‘bottom up’, localised approaches and collectively (and peacefully) pressure the political classes, corporate entities and wealthy elites to change their institutional and personal practices to place more importance on human health and wellbeing.

Meaningful outcomes of both types of activities include building opportunities for meaningful social connection; contributing to ‘rewilding’ projects and green spaces; reducing material consumption and air travel; and finally, supporting divestment from ‘dirty’ commodities. Individuals with stronger sense of purpose are thought to show greater perseverance in working toward their aims, which is fortunate, as these can be difficult tasks requiring ongoing engagement despite what can seem insurmountable odds.

People need guidance on how they can fulfil their sense of prosocial purpose to achieve these aims, however, and this may be an opportunity for health psychology to become involved . Health psychology (and psychology in general) needs to be braver in challenging the status quo to effectively support such efforts and achieve climate and social justice for the sake of human health and that of our planet, alongside the children and activists who are already showing such courage.


[1] Robinson, M. (2018). Climate Change: A man-made problem with a feminist solution. Bloomsbury Publishing: Ireland.

[2] Kemperman, A., Berg, P. V. D., Weijs-Perrée, M., & Uijtdewillegen, K. (2019, Loneliness of older adults: Social network and the living environment. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 16, 406. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph16030406

[3]Cacciopo, J. (2016). Conference proceedings. European Health Psychology Society Conference. Aberdeen. 

[4] Davis, S. J., & Caldeira, K. (2010). Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0906974107

 [5] Bains, K. K., & Turnbull, T. (2019). Improving health outcomes and serving wider society: the potential impact of understanding and cultivating prosocial purpose within health psychology research and practice to address climate change and social isolation and loneliness. Frontiers in Psychology: New Directions in Health Psychology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01787 

About the author

Kiran K Bains is a practitioner health psychologist currently based in an Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) context in the UK and aims to build up a service for people with long term conditions and persistent physical conditions in the service. She recently completed her professional doctorate in health psychology and her thesis focussed on understanding and improving the health of people with learning disabilities, south Asians and LGBTQ adults using theory and community-based approaches. In a similar vein, Kiran has ongoing commitments to reducing health inequalities in marginalised communities, who are also often at greatest risk of social isolation and loneliness alongside its negative effects on their health. Kiran is also very passionate about working together to address climate change and this significantly inspired her recent paper and blog post on these topics.

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