Stories and Personal Culture

Humans are made up of stories as much as they are made up of bones, blood, muscles and organs.

The stories we tell ourselves create personalized algorithms that influence how we feel and what we choose.

For example, being stared at used to make me uncomfortable. I just assumed that that was a universal human trait shared by all people.

Then I lived in Germany, where, at least in the early 90s, staring wasn’t considered rude. Looking at someone was just looking at someone.

I stopped having a charge when people looked at me for long periods of time because I no longer had the story to go with it that they were being rude, or that there must be something wrong with me (like an unzipped fly, or big pimple) to evoke such interest.

If this is hard for you to imagine, remember back to the last time a baby stared at you. Most people don’t mind it when a baby stares at them; personally, I like it because it makes me feel special.

The stories we tell ourselves, and the personalized feeling- and decision-making algorithms they create, are what I call culture.

We each have a unique culture the same way we have unique DNA. Almost every gene we have is shared by a multitude of other people, but the specific combination we have, plus any mutations, are solely ours.

Similarly, almost every story we tell ourselves is a story many other people share, but the combination of the stories we tell ourselves is personalized. Our personal culture is influenced by many different sources.

We grow up in a country where there is a prevailing culture that citizens are steeped in from birth. For example, in the States, many of the stories we are exposed to come from movies and TV. Even people that never watch TV or movies are likely to pick up some of the gist of those stories from those that do.

One common cultural theme we are immersed in in the States is that there is some product we can own that will bring more happiness, or at least contentment. This message comes to us in TV commercials, billboards, newspaper ads, maybe from watching our parents or their friends…we are exposed to this idea thousands of times a year in many different ways.

A corollary to this is that there could be some product we could buy that would make us attractive enough to find romantic love, which in turn will also bring happiness. Every movie you watched where someone got a makeover and then found love, every commercial for shiny hair or a sweet smell or an impressive watch, every magazine with pictures of smiling, skinny models pretending to be in love on one page with weight-loss ads on the next page, is implicitly or explicitly telling this story.

In addition to our country’s culture, we each also have our family’s (or families’) culture, or if you didn’t have a family, the culture of the institution where you were raised. My parents had a strong culture of non-consumerism, so I was strongly influenced by that growing up, despite the fact that I am also a citizen of the consumption-driven U.S.A..

The books you read can also be an important cultural influence, from the first picture books that are read to you to weighty philosophical tomes. Books can expose you to a wide variety of cultures, not just from different countries, but also from different time periods. They can expose you to cultures that start out only existing in the author’s head, for example on alien planets in science fiction, or in an imagined future of this planet in utopias or dystopias.

There are regional cultures, city cultures, neighborhood cultures, group cultures, religious cultures…all of these can influence our personal culture. And if we belong to a region, a city, a neighborhood, a group, or a religion, our personal culture will be one of the flavors that goes into the soup of that larger culture.

Sometimes we are so immersed in our culture we can’t even see it. It’s like the joke about the fish: an old fish swims by two young fish and says, “How’s the water today?” and one young fish turns to the other and says, “What’s water?”

If the fish are always swimming in the same water, how are they supposed to know how, or even what, the water is? But if you put a fish in ten different bowls with ten different waters — some with chlorine, some with algae, some alkaline, some acid, etc…- then the fish can start to understand what water is and see that some water is preferable to it than other water.

One thing I liked about living in foreign countries and studying anthropology was that those experiences gave me a lot of different cultures to compare, which helped me to identify what culture was. I could then pick and choose my favorite elements to create my own unique Kris culture.

Going back to my first example, I thought discomfort with staring was universal. Living in another country helped me identify it as cultural rather than universal. This gave me the freedom to choose which story I wanted to tell myself — “staring is rude,” “staring is normal,” or “staring is sometimes rude and sometimes not rude, depending on the circumstances.”

Consciously discarding less fruitful stories and embracing more fruitful ones is a powerful way we can change ourselves to have better algorithms that lead to more happiness.

Years ago, I woke up one morning with the certain belief that I was living in the best of all possible universes. I walked around for a week in a euphoric bliss that this was so.

After a week, reality set in. A little voice in my head said, “Kris, you can’t really know for sure that you are living in the best possible universe, and you never can know.”

I countered with, “Well, yeah, but I also can’t know for sure that I’m NOT living in the best possible universe, and I can never know THAT either.”

So I checked for which story had the most pragmatic benefits.

If I’m living in the best possible universe, then anything that feels bad or challenging is still superior to whatever alternative I can imagine. For example, if I lose my car keys, it might be annoying, but I can easily imagine the car wreck I could have gotten into if I hadn’t have lost them. This creates more emotional equanimity and positivity, which in turn leads to greater capacity for me to act. This is true for me and what I know about myself so far.

If I’m not living in the best possible universe, then anything bad or challenging feels like a mistake, like I screwed up or made a bad choice. Those same lost car keys become a tragedy caused by my own stupidity. I’m angry and judgmental with myself, and my capacity to act is diminished. This is true for me and what I know about myself so far.

I decided that, no matter what the ultimate truth was from a God’s-eye point of view, given that I could never know that ultimate truth, I would choose the story that worked best for me.

So I decided I was living in the best of all possible universes.

I encourage everyone to identify the stories they’re telling themselves, and consciously get rid of poor stories and replace them with high-quality ones in order to promote personal happiness and contentment.

Ultimately, we have a choice as to what stories we tell ourselves, no matter what stories we grew up on or are bombarded with, and we can become more and more skillful at choosing or creating the best ones for ourselves.

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