I don’t mean materially or in terms of social standing, or even necessarily against reliable measures of our health and well-being. What I mean, simply, is that we have a common inability to make the most of our time and personal resources, to consider and then act in ways that reliably get us what we most want. Many of us miss important opportunities for larger and more satisfying lives, for new perspective and more optimal choices, literally each day.
We often sense this truth of our time, even as we are apt not to admit it, even to ourselves. In quiet conversation, people from various walks of life will often open up and tell you they should be doing more with their lives. When pressed to explore or explain this thought, they often speak of feeling trapped somehow and limited by their circumstances, or uncertain about what changes might be best or possible for them, or that they fear change even as they know they might benefit from it.
This common finding and feeling of ours – amidst unprecedented prosperity and freedom in the developed world by any reasonable measure – underscores that human thinking and action need not be and in fact never is optimal. That is, our general approach to life can be quite limited in many respects and still become widespread and even a dominant pattern in society. Our culture can close important doors to better modes of living and still carry forward into the future and become deeply rooted in a people, even fostering reduced health and engendering irrational fear of change in our lives. As we can see from our history, our patterns of ideas and actions similarly need not be optimal to advance technological and economic progress, and perhaps cannot become more optimal if they advance material enrichment above other important considerations.
In truth, our patterns of thinking and action need only have certain identifiable qualities to make them enduring, qualities that cause them to be situationally functional and attractive to people, even when better alternatives can be found or even are recognized. In a sense, many thoughts and ways of acting can be like a flu virus, always around and present in our communities, taking advantage of the fact of large numbers of people living in close quarters, but mostly to the benefit of the virus (though sometimes affording us new immunity). None of us wishes to contract the flu, or to suffer from a life constrained by unconscious and limiting beliefs and habits, and yet we may do little to reduce either potential in our daily lives.
For people in pursuit of healthier and fuller life, it is important to understand why some forms of thinking and behavior really can be contagious and self-replicating in society, just like a virus, moving through society and our lives without tangible benefit to us. And we must consider how we each can better see, rid ourselves of, and protect ourselves against this potential for persistent, limiting, and unhealthy ideas and habits in our own lives.
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To begin to explore this important and far-ranging theme, let’s begin by examining examples of the persistent ideas and habits of which I speak, ones that are popular and enduring, and often far from than optimal, keeping us from new and better ways of thinking and acting. If we take the time to do this, we soon realize that there are different forms of persistent thoughts and actions, and that persistency may be far more widespread and powerful than we first imagined.
Some persistent ideas and behaviors have an immediate appeal and special attractiveness solely in their novelty. They captivate us with their freshness and crowd out more familiar alternatives, at least for a time. This form of thinking and acting is thereby well-suited to take the shape of temporary fads and crazes. Such phenomena are apt to die off quickly once their novelty is exhausted, perhaps to be replaced by still newer affections waiting for us to give ourselves over to them and their novelty. New popular idioms of speech, fashions of all sorts, and music and dance trends often fit in this first category of persistence, coming upon us unexpectedly and passing over us in waves that can be measured in months, giving us new content and excitement in our lives for a time, and perhaps never allowing us to dry ourselves completely before the next wave comes.
As an example of this first form of persistency, there is a teenage pop-star in fevered vogue right now as I write this, one who is on the lips or at least somewhere in the consciousness of nearly everyone I meet, by definition crowding out other objects of attention to a greater or lesser degree. This young star, as you might have guessed, is far more sensational than exceptional, in both ability and trajectory. There is of course a strong probability that this star will not be quite so famous and captivating by the time these words reach you, and that if I were to name her now, you might even think my reference passé, a curious artifact in our memory. And yet, right now, she is a true phenom and an infectious force in our popular culture, as likely a different and not so different new star is in reading this at another time. Like most pop stars, both will have a fresh face, an act that is novel and yet recognizable and aligned with the sensibility of their time, and the piquancy to all ages that comes from a young and ecstatic following, all of which are likely to lose these qualities over time, as their novelty is exhausted. In these and similar forms of fads, we expect instances of persistence that may become quite passionate and widespread, but in the end also short-lived, though there are exceptions (suggesting different characteristics and another form of persistency).
If we turn our attention to other forms of persistent thinking and behavior, we can see two other related categories that typically last longer than the popular and fast-moving fads and crazes I just described. One category involves affections that come and endure for a time, perhaps for several years or more. The other category is similar, but differs in that the ideas or behaviors return to popular favor and the attention of culture more than once, perhaps even returning perennially over the course of a century or more (or becoming a permanent feature in some people’s lives, especially if in vogue during the identity-coalescing years of adolescence). These two types of persistence take the form of trends, styles, or movements that may pervade a community for an extended time, until they finally begin fade, perhaps living on to frame or form the content of our memories of an epoch for an extended time.
As an American, I immediately think of the wildly popular mid-twentieth century artist Norman Rockwell, the traditional life of his time that he enshrined in paint, and the equally popular early radio dramas and ballroom dancing and fashions of his time. These national affections persisted for a decade or more, and now fill our often reverent thoughts and recollections of this period. In this example, these deeply entrenched cultural phenomena are also not just simply remembered fondly but are potentially returning too. There is continued interest in and periodically rekindled forms of these things and this epoch, as there are in and of many of the other seemingly discrete decades of the twentieth century, far more than any decade of the nineteenth century (in the United States, the nineteenth century themes of the wild west and civil war are strong and long enduring parts of the culture and history, not viewed as decadal phenomena and thus are likely persistency of a different variety). The specific type of persistence that any remembered decade contains within it includes this potential for new outbreaks of attention and influence, if conditions align. Here, instead of novelty in the sense of newness, we see novelty recast as uniqueness or distinctness, and it is the distinctiveness of any past era or preoccupation, its potential for both fit and contrast with a later time, that allows for the resurgence of old eras and their pastimes. As I write this, the 1960s are back as a fashion style and not for the first time, so much so that we might wonder if this is more than a periodic persistency destined to eventually burn itself out.
A fourth form of persistency has a recurring quality as well, but is not linked to any one period or evocative of a specific time and place. Such recurring persistency, for example, might involve the feelings of nostalgia and nationalistic behavior that frequently emerge during an outbreak of hostilities, during an economic downturn, or around a major anniversary of a nation or historic event. This type of persistency is less about a return to an earlier mood or time of life than it is a move to a specific and recurring general frame of mind. It is instead a general reaction or patterned response that people adopt when faced with protracted stress or deviation from routine daily conditions, or when there is heightened attention to history and the society generally (with its perennial challenges and stresses). As an example of this, notice the patterns of thought and action at the next major electrical outage or natural disaster, or even during the next election cycle in your country or the next round of Olympic Games. Likely, you will find familiar conduct and thinking emergent and actively promoted (with expectations that you adopt this thinking and use of your attention), familiar discussions and debates of change that should occur for the future (and which sometimes do result in change), and often highly regular and predictable responses to these and other recurring events.
This rough exposition of persistency suggests, since it is a cross-cultural and expected phenomenon, that persistence is innate, driven by our human nature and inherent circumstances. I think this is true, even if the content and manifestations of persistency can take forms that vary between cultures, simply because similar phenomena can be observed across all cultures. If the fact of or our potential for persistent judgments and conduct is innate, we might hypothesize that persistency has been selected by nature and that it is functional to people. I think this is true too, and here we must be careful not to accept the persistency of ideas and especially the content of specific forms of persistency simply because persistency may be natural (this is the lure of the naturalistic fallacy, a persistent idea in modern western culture).
One reason for care is that what may have been functional in the more constrained condition of wild nature may be limiting or even detrimental to us now, in the context of advanced society and mass culture. The second reason to remain cautious toward the potential naturalness of persistency is that while perhaps functional in nature, and a trait perhaps selected over millions of years, it is unlikely that natural persistency ever resulted in optimal thought and action for us – since functionality and survival of genes was its goal. Natural human enmity and inter-clan violence, when intra-clan cooperation might have been consciously favored as a general model, is an example of this. We are thus right to look at both natural and cultural persistency in a balanced way, as potentially useful but also potentially limiting, and worthy of our attention as we seek more conscious, chosen, and freer life. In thinking through some of my examples, however, it does seem that much of our modern persistency is our innate nature taken over and infected amidst the new conditions of large settled societies and mass culture, likely crowding out alternative and more beneficial uses of our time and attention, individually and as a society.
All of the categories and examples of persistent ideas and behavior we have discussed raise our overall awareness of this phenomenon in our lives, but really are just a prelude to the deeper form of persistency I most want to talk about today. A fifth and far more important set of ideas, feelings, judgments, and uses of our attention can last much longer than the fads, epochs, and the perennially recurring themes of a society. There is persistence that can become deeply enmeshed in the day-to-day life and thinking of a people, part of its long-term culture and traditions, a constant and tenacious condition of persistency so to speak. As a condition, this deeper and often unseen persistency can remain in our midst throughout our lives and the life of a culture, and really is the culture in its essence. As I suggested before, such persistent ideas and corresponding patterns of action can even exist in spite of their being far less than optimal, defined here in terms of objectively promoting health, well-being, and quality of life.
It is to this last and often most intractable category of persistent ideas and behaviors that I primarily write today, to the constraint of culture in our quest for higher life, especially as this persistency occurs in or around us and constrains our individual lives. That said, what I will say applies at least in part to other, more short-lived or cyclical patterns of thought and action, which together are a part of and help to perpetuate culture and can vastly reduce our potential for chosen attention and action when we succumb to them.
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In his provocative book, Stumbling On Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes about the limitations and opportunities we each face in knowing, as opposed to and distinct from creating, the lives we want for ourselves and others for the future. In his book, Gilbert summarizes key research findings about universal psychological constraints in our pursuit of an accurate understanding our happiness, constraints within each of us that inhibit our ability to optimize our future plans. These internal constraints include specific innate and evolved neurological structures within our brains, which we have inherited from nature, and specific psychological structures of thinking and feeling within our minds, which we often derive from our environment, social relationships, and ongoing life experiences.
It is in regards to this second set of constraints, to the structures or patterns of thinking and feeling we take from the world around us, that Gilbert discusses the phenomenon of deep persistency or acculturation I have introduced. As suggested earlier, often unconscious and relatively unchanging patterns in our emotions, thoughts and actions – affective, cognitive, and behavioral persistence – taken from our culture and environment can create powerful constraints on our perception and freedom and power of choice, constraints that psychologists, social scientists, and evolutionary theorists of our time are now coming to understand and better appreciate for their complexity and importance.
In one passage, Gilbert writes, “Ideas can flourish if they preserve the social systems that allow them to be transmitted.” This short sentence elegantly summarizes important and even remarkable new thinking about the way in which our ideas and habitual behavior can become persistently and subtly embedded in our social environment and our own lives, to the point where we do not notice and attend to them, even when they are inimical to our personal or collective benefit, and even when they are patently untrue and self-deceptive.
Simply put, if ideas work to reinforce existing social structures, they can be favored and spread across people, even if they bring relatively high costs and negative side effects in an objective sense or when compared with other ideas. Such ideas and their resulting behaviors need only promote a threshold level of functionality for society, within a sufficient number of individual lives, to endure. Or they need only sufficiently crowd out other ideas, by possessing a requisite attractiveness or other self-promoting qualities, to replicate and persist across a people, as people replicate and persist. The ideas and behaviors of any culture are thus likely to have only partial utility to its people, even as they remain fixed in the minds of most adults, and promote life choices that cause the same ideas to find their way into most children and grandchildren.
Another way of looking at this phenomena is to say that persistent ideas can survive by being prolific, in a biological or organic way and thus with at least two uses of this word. First, ideas must encourage or cannot inhibit the production and care of children and grandchildren as part of their content, so that they can both reliably spread and then be maintained across a people over time. Second, in some inverse relation to the first characteristic, ideas must crowd out other ideas in the human mind, in their inherent competition for our attention. We can reason why persistent ideas must inhibit alternative ideas and open thinking to some degree, since ones that do (and that spread sufficiently on their own or with other ideas) can be expected to be favored by selection forces, and are more likely to both inhabit and then reinforce a culture, especially in the absence of external pressures. The key point here is that persistent ideas can exist for themselves and need merely suffice in the lives of people, or satisfice to recall Herbert Simon’s description of intelligent method. Ideas and behavior need only be situationally functional relative to alternatives, and need never be optimal or pursue optimality in a more objective sense of this word, to remain in our midst. In actual or self-created isolation, a culture can thus naturally gravitate to its own center, one that may be quite undesirable objectively, and remain there for an extended time.
There’s more, even leaving aside how persistency might lead and probably has led to natural selection and genetic changes that shape and develop our innate human capacity for persistent feelings, thoughts, and actions. Strictly within the realm of culture, once an initial network of complementary ideas have been selected and become persistent in a community of people, these ideas can begin an evolution of their own, driven solely by social forces within the community, as long as they remain sufficiently functional in the general environment and to the people who carry them. With isolation or only limited or inhibited outside influences, initial ideas can be built upon, altered and added to, or replaced or reduced in importance through the same mechanism of cognitive and sexual selection that led them to become persistent in the first place. In a culture, any change or natural drift in conditions – perhaps by aided intergenerational rivalry or simply from individuals seeking esteemed social niches – can cause either existing or new ideas to become more prolific than others, and thus replace the formerly dominant positions of other ideas (just as we see in a more limited way in successions of fads). As we can observe in the world and our history, elaborate and ornate cultures, as well as quite ethnocentric and defensive cultures, are readily and reliably created through unmanaged selection forces, just as wild nature creates ornate and greatly elaborated species over time, especially in relative isolation.
I have written on other occasions about self-reinforcing, compounding, and sub-optimal thinking and feeling, and their potential to both reduce our health and reinforce these conditions around us. As an example, in an article entitled Health At The Holidays, I discussed how unhealthy and even startling expectations and social practices can make their way into and find firm footing at the holidays, despite having visibly corrosive effects on our general health and well-being, simply by have a self-perpetuating quality and influencing our future attitudes and behavior. I argued this potential for unconscious and detrimental persistency compelled us to become more attentive and responsible during traditional holidays and, ultimately, to create new and more optimal forms of holiday celebrations and rituals, ones that are more consciously and expressly health-promoting.
Today, I want to encourage expanded consideration of persistent ideas and life patterns that are entrenched in our everyday contemporary life, especially when they negatively affect our lives and communities. I also want to underscore our need and ability to understand the reasons for this persistence, so we may take action to counter persistency and create more optimal conditions for ourselves and others. To advance our health and quality of life, and that of the communities and nations we live in, we must each recognize how and why persistency can occur, and learn to see when and where it does occur, particularly in popular ideas and habits that are harmful and limiting to us, and even those that are life threatening. From there, strategies to reveal persistency to others and circumvent undesirable habitual patterns can come as a next step.
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To better understand and achieve new awareness of our vulnerability to deep and harmful persistence, it is essential to appreciate the rich web of ideas and life practices that surround us all, whether we live in a modern city or a thatched hut at the edge of civilization. In truth, none of us is ever a blank slate or perfect window on the world, even though we may be apt to fall into this naive and egocentric mode of perception. Regardless of our circumstances, if we are to cultivate ourselves and come more aware in and of the world, we must each redevelop our intuition so that we are attentive to the many constraints and limitations that come with our human brain, mind, and culture. Only in this way can we reliably discover and overcome the inevitable and unending patterns of undesirable persistency that work to shade and color our perceptions and choices.
I might underscore this imperative by having us spend a moment thinking of cults, whether religious, philosophical, or situational. All cults share similar characteristics, even as they are quite diverse in content and expression, and size and scope. Cults almost always involve enforced physical or perceptual isolation of their members, a strong bias against and even overt hostility to surrounding people and their patterns of life, the promise of greater happiness or purity through life within the cult, an ideology that promotes reproduction or the enlisting of new members, a cooperative ethos that catalyzes favorable economic activity, a cult hero or object, and a caste of interpreters or enforcers of social order. With these pre-conditions for proliferation of a cult, elaborate, self-perpetuating, and evolving patterns and thinking and behavior can develop, which are generally viewed from the outside very differently than from within the cult. Importantly, when people are removed from cults of all sorts, it can be psychologically difficult and deconstruct their identity, even as it may be difficult physically as well and why removal from outside is often needed. Ex-cult members even routinely report not fully realizing they were living within a cult and can later look at the cult with an outside and more objective perspective. Both facts suggest that cult members are typically not neurologically impaired, that the social order within a cult can be an invisible force to its members, and that this potential for invisibility is a powerful and likely biologically based feature of our nature (since cult members appear normal neurologically), even suggesting active selection for a cult-mindedness among humans generally.
This brief look at cults, which typically live as small eddies within a larger host culture, might lead us to question how different a community or society is from a cult, other than in scale. In truth, many of the attributes of a cult find their analogues within larger cultures and societies, and really in any human community. All enduring social groups naturally require maintenance of order and rules of conduct, provisioning of their members, and expansion or at least maintenance of their membership. All social groups thus take on some of the characteristics and use many of the techniques of a cult, admittedly in a looser way and with greater interaction with the outside environment, though such differences are far from absolute. In truth, the outside view of any nation or culture is always different than the view from within it, as expatriates soon learn (and can use to their advantage), whether they remain abroad or return to live in their native community. As mentioned before, cultures are also likely naturally inclined to be self-referential and inimical to new ideas and outside influences, and can be seen to operate in just this way to some degree.
Once we begin to think of our own community from this perspective, and to examine any of its features or practices, we quickly see many ideas and routine ways of perceiving we were not aware of and had not examined before. We soon learn to appreciate the vast extent of ideas and patterns we have not consciously chosen that are always present in us and can exert a strong influence on us, and the many forms they can take. These ideas and practices include our inherited traditions, our customs and individual mannerisms, our unexamined assumptions and beliefs about the way life is and how it can and must be structured, the things that hold our attention and occupy our time throughout the day, and even our common sense and the expectations we unconsciously set for ourselves and one another. A way to think about this impact of our environment and culture is with the metaphor of speech. We each speak, and live, with both a particular language and a regional accent and individual affect that reflects our distinct origins, life experiences, and innate biology. So it is with the force of culture and our nature generally.
Sometimes, of course, we find truly beneficial ideas and needed universal practices in our environment, proven and therefore persistent over time for good cause, for their ability to further society and not just themselves. Examples of this include our inclination to come to the aid of others, to cooperate reciprocally, and to treat some thoughts and actions as immoral and taboo. Some inevitable persistence is therefore important and beneficial to any society of people, and has evolved to a secure place in both simple and complex society because of this, and thus even may be biologically based. Essential persistence has been selected over time, by nature and society and across many situations, because it is critical to the advancement of life, and human life is made better or even possible because of them. Our tender and nurturing feelings toward children, as another example, would most certainly fall into this category (as it does for many other mammalian species dependent on communal networks for survival).
In other cases, however, we can find persistent ideas and practices that are less inevitable, and make far less sense when we look at them carefully, or no sense at all. As we explore the neurological, conceptual, and social phenomena in and around us, in every culture and community, we gradually can discover a great number of ideas and behaviors that are perhaps initially curious and then prove senseless under extended scrutiny. We find that these ideas and behaviors are in fact merely persistent, situationally functional to some degree and self-reinforcing, but far from optimal in a broader or universal sense. Such feeling, thinking, and acting perpetuates in our minds or communities because of qualities inherent to the ideas or behavior patterns themselves, rather than because they are highly beneficial or universally necessary to people. This persistence may well do far more harm than good, in our individual lives and whole communities, and only has achieved certain threshold characteristics in our particular social or cultural setting to continue in our midst.
As I mentioned before, unhealthy and arbitrary ideas and social practices in our midst include many of our traditional rituals and their modern mutations, but are hardly confined there. We can see examples of persistent, flu-like ideas and habits everyday and everywhere, ideas and social patterns that simply self-perpetuate and do us no good. Obvious examples of this are the numerous customs that occur throughout the course of our day, in every traditional and contemporary culture, especially ones that are patently unhealthy. These include the manner in which we commonly eat, work, interact, and socialize, as well as our rites and practices in special settings. The next time you feel awkward by not wishing to raise a glass of alcohol in a toast, or by not wanting to eat unhealthy traditional foods at a social gathering, you will be reminded of just how ubiquitous and deeply imbedded these self-reinforcing customs are (and importantly, how arbitrary they often are in content). You will perhaps also begin see the reproductive consequences of forgoing these social customs, since unless we are creative and attentive to others who share our awareness or preferences, we risk our lowering our social status and reproductive potential if we do not follow these customs.
A more subtle and controlling persistency is contained in the framework of ideas and feelings that underlies contemporary society itself, which supports the way life is structured generally and guides what is prioritized by our cultures. This includes what thinking and acting is encouraged or discouraged as we move through the course of our days and lives, what we do and do not do in the face of our environmental imperatives, and especially how child-rearing and home life is encouraged. If you reflect on how the majority of people spend their time, even right now as you read this – enmeshed in the patterns and obligations of traditional cultures, or running atop the treadmill of modern consumerist and careerist life – you can see clearly arbitrary content, content that works to both constrain and define us, preclude alternative ideas and choices, and shape and stabilize us in our environment, notably at a particular level of health and well-being, if we allow our cultural content to do this. This insight gives new meaning to the popular refrain, “go with the flow.” In truth, greater health and higher life often, if not always, run contrary to the general flow (the result of blind selection forces) of any time and place in important ways.
As an example of these subtle and powerful evolved forces in our lives, let me discuss human shelter for a moment (though I might have chosen cuisine or clothing or any of the artifacts of human society). Constructing shelter is universally functional for people in almost all localities and circumstances, and certainly is endemic to fixed human life. But in truth, most human construction today has little to do with the simple provision of shelter. In all developed societies, elaborate systems of architecture have in fact grown out of earlier building practices aimed more directly at creating basic shelter (though even these practices, as they exist above the creation of simple huts, are not pure sheltering either. All architectural systems evolve to communicate rank and status, of both the designer and owner of the structure, notably by appealing to and expressing a particular taste and aesthetic held in regard by others of a time’ Life other social practice, architecture thus generally reflects and reinforces a specific class and style of human life. This communication and reinforcement is of course always socially and/or sexually functional and driven by these human imperatives, which is what makes any architecture both persistent and naturally evolving (since status requires varying alliance with and contrast to earlier building styles). Thus, so much of architectural content is arbitrary, situational, and only tangentially focused on shelter – let alone focused on fostering optimal human health and well-being in our built environment. Many alternative architectures are always possible in any local, but we routinely see a narrowing of choices and then a gradual and familiar evolution of styles across all cultures, communities, and social groups, aimed at social currency primarily rather than optimal human sheltering. Architecture is thus a clear case of persistent, socially selected ideas that respond to and reinforce local conditions of culture. It is thinking and behavior that is incrementally functionally or rational in a highly bounded way, but often quite irrational or senseless when made the custom or used to promote the general well-being of a society.
As I suggested, there are of course many other evolved and self-evolving ideas and practices that similarly work to shape our personal environment and limit our life perspective. The example of architectural systems is important in part as a demonstration of an arbitrary and persistent human system, but also in part because it demonstrates that persistent systems can be seen for what they are. By this, I mean that many of our behavioral and conceptual patterns can be examined for their relative functionality and efficiency, for their universal optimality given a natural environment, and in particular, for the elements they contain that objectively increase or reduce our health and well-being. To underscore this idea in our example, we might measure hours of work or energy and material expended per person to meet basic needs for shelter, or the relative life satisfaction and longevity of a population living in a built environment, or alternative systems and zoning rules that might produce a preferable final result (i.e. healthier babies and adults). This idea hardly requires invasive social engineering or a particular ideological bent, simply the practical examination of self-defeating behaviors and the institution of universal rules to encourage more optimal use of resources in the promotion of healthy and fulfilled individual life (notably discouragement of excessive display of status, an idea compellingly advocated by the economist Robert Frank).
Whenever our cognitive and social patterns contain obvious arbitrary content that leads both individuals and whole peoples to live life less optimally and below their full potential – when it fosters thinking and conduct that is perhaps smart for one person but senseless as a pattern for everyone – change is possible and may be highly desirable, even if care must be taken in the process of guiding new choices. We must be cautious to create alternatives that are objectively preferable and not simply a new opportunity for senseless and self-defeating competition, simply for a new expression of age-old persistency. This admittedly can be a difficult progression, but I will argue that it is our future and a natural progression of human life, since the alternative is life lived below our attention and in ways that are both illogical and unfulfilling.
Our long human history, after all, has been a broad trend from instinctual to conditioned to more conscious and examined life, however imperfectly and haphazard this trend has been, and there is no reason why this development should not continue. The work of the philosopher John Rawles will perhaps prove very helpful in this task as the social policy level, who asks us to design society prospectively, as a place that we must live in but not knowing in advance our eventual position in it. As individuals, we of course must ask the opposite challenge: given the society and social position we know, how can we best uncover and advance our most important life aims within our lives?
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To conclude and bring home our discussion of the place and power of persistency in our lives and social environment, consider the way people of all sorts live today around the world. Of our twenty four-hours each day, perhaps sixteen are biologically mandated. This is time spent responding directly to our basic needs for sleep, food, hygiene, shelter, and requisite social interactions. The other third of our time is thus generally not mandated, but is time that is often quite structured and seemingly full.
As I suggested at the beginning, and as you can observe in and for yourself, our unmandated time is life that very often feels quite mandated to people. We often feel we have little control over what may be a full third of our time, time in truth where nature demands nothing from us, especially if we do not have a large family to support. This non-mandated time, which can be recast as free and thus either implicitly or explicitly chosen time, is often structured in ways we can be at a loss to explain, except to rationalize or moralize it as corresponding to our personal preferences and social commitments. And we may be apt to both defend and despair of these preferences and commitments. But, as we have asked before in our discussion, why?
If you consider any of your own “non-mandated” habits or pastimes, and I would encourage you to do just this as our discussion comes to a close, you may begin to see the subtle selection forces at work within your own life, forces that lead to persistence, shaping us as people and showing how we are at least partial products of our communities. Many of our personal habits and behavior may be as genuinely inexplicable as I have suggested, but they can be equally hard to deconstruct and overcome. It often seems as if there is great momentum to our preferences and activities, from both within and outside us, and alternatives feel and may actually be difficult and inconvenient, at least in the short run.
To underscore this point, and as a final example of the ubiquitous persistence that touches us all, let’s consider our manner of dress and what we are wearing right now, which can be seen as our personal architecture of sorts. Rather than asking you to look at whether you are wearing stripes or solids, instead I would like you to consider how both you and others would react to your adopting a completely different and decidedly unconventional form of dressing (or a conventional one if you and your peers tend to the unconventional), and what the practical consequences would be for you of such a change. In your case, would the change make you feel more or less comfortable and apt to socialize with others, and would the people around you be apt to embrace or ostracize you for the change? Would you have more or fewer potential social companions and, importantly for our discussion, sexual partners? Likely, you would gradually gravitate to a new social network, or one might gravitate to you (and perhaps not gradually).
With this simple example, since fashion is largely arbitrary and referential in content, perhaps you can begin to more closely see and feel the forces of persistency I have described, at work on us all. Even such arbitrary but obvious changes as our attire are difficult to sustain because the structure of our culture or subculture reinforces itself in and through us all, and makes many changes difficult. In this way, environmental forces can subtly and forcibly, and often enjoyably, work to pattern and socialize us in ways we do not naturally perceive. They can make us stay rooted within our circumstances, and we may naturally fail to see our circumstances as circumstances. Culture can make us feel more rather than less discomfort when our circumstances and expectations are impinged upon, narrow us into generally accepted ways of living and valuation, and ultimately lead us to have and nurture children with people sharing, accepting, and promoting the elements of our culture and circumstances (or to not have children or to otherwise live apart from our culture).
If any society, or really any individual from any species, is thus inevitably situationally focused, self-referential, and self-reinforcing to some degree, if we are always subject to evolving and satisfying selection forces, and if we are always seen differently from outside our perceptual construct than from inside it, life then always is only partly responsive to the greater environment and our full potential in it at any time – for optimal life within, let alone beyond, the society or species of a time and place. This may seem obvious once stated and now that we have explored the mechanisms that make this so, but it is an idea that few of us have begun to use systematically to make more out of their own circumstances, or to live more optimally in a universal sense, or to inform our social policies.
Does the fact of persistence within all life situations imply that we must get out of our social castes and host cultures, and even away from our species, in order to see our lives and life opportunities more clearly? I think so. It is common, as in my earlier reference to expatriates and in my own frequent discussions of people hiking in wild nature, for individuals who remove themselves (or are removed) from a wide variety of forms of habituated living, whether temporarily or permanently, to report fresh perspective on their lives and the world. This fact, to me, is important and prescriptive for us all. It implies the need for movement, and for new experiences and even random interactions, as a regular and integral part of all healthy, optimizing, and growing human life. It also suggests the importance of science and the objective inquiry into human life, to break through natural and cultural persistency and allow us to make more optimal choices in our individual and collective lives.
People in new circumstances, or living from perspectives altered by new information, so often report seeing innovative possibilities and opportunities for positive change in their lives they were unable to see before. Much like our example of people unaware they are dwelling in a cult, this changed outlook suggests that fairly strong socialization and habituation forces are active in all our lives, and deserve far more consideration than we typically give. For me, a change in our circumstances, especially when directed at improving our health and well-being, but perhaps even for change’s sake, is the first step and a needed ongoing practice to begin to free ourselves from persistent, disabling, and limiting ideas – and the enabling social structures that work with them to shape and constrain us as people.
Change is something we all can make happen, even if we are constrained by the incentives of our social structure and must temper our change with considerations of our mid-term health and well-being. And even if we do not know what to change specifically, and even if we must be quite creative in assessing our options and paths to new life opportunities. In truth, the mere act and fact of consciously chosen change, and the new perspectives and opportunities such change can afford, offers the prospect of fresh and expanding cycles of growth in our lives. The choice to chose works to awaken, reveal, and then weaken persistent ideas in us. It allows us to begin to overwrite the habitual behaviors that envelop and define us in more narrow ways than our possible, allowing us to make more optimal choices within our circumstances and perhaps even to structure our lives in more universal and conscious ways.
In the end, change requires a commitment only to change, and to learn from change and to change again from what we learn. This iterative process can begin humbly and need not be a radical movement away from our society (and likely should never be). It can and should start in small ways to reduce the risks of unintended consequences and upsetting important relationships in our lives today, but compounding change and learning can proceed reliably and increase in speed and scale over time, as we iteratively clarify our options and understand their trade-offs (the costs and benefits that come with all change). Change and learning can even culminate in individual and communal life made principally of conscious and intelligent choices, a life of continual growth and progressive well-being where self-challenging is a norm, and where our obligations to community are met and even satisfied in new ways.
We each have the ability to chose and make life created and shaped by conscious choices, rather than inherited from tradition or conforming to the social inertia contained in the culture of any particular time and place. We each can escape persistence, can help and be helped by others in this, and learn to live in freer and larger ways – as people and as a people.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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