Philosophy of Consciousness: Why You Are Not Stronger Than Your Environment

Maarten van Doorn
Mar 30 · 7 min read

A lot of us overestimate our psychological independence, and I am no exception.

Surely, I can flourish anywhere, can’t I? Making friends is not that hard — and really, how different is the daily grind going to be whether me, my laptop and my brain do their thing in The Netherlands, Budapest, or anywhere else?

There is even research claiming that variations in circumstances only account for 10% of self-reported subjective well-being.

If, I figured, when unhappy, the culprit was internal, the solution had to be too. I needed to meditate longer, be more grateful, work harder and intervene in my self-talk and bliss would find its way to my doorstep, wherever that would be.

I am a strong, independent man.


Taken to its logical consequence, this line of reasoning can get dark pretty quickly. If I couldn’t feel good here, wherever, I wouldn’t feel good at home either. Wherever I go, I take myself with me, and my mind would still be the same haunted house.

Changing environments equaled chickening out.

Furthermore, phenomena like hedonic adaptation suggest that whatever external change, you’ll return to your base level of happiness anyway. Hence, what we need is a way to change this default and make it immune to everything external. As Seneca instructs:

Look toward the true good, and rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by “from your own store”? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you. — Letters to Lucilius

If I ‘needed’ some configuration of external circumstances to feel good, that meant I failed in changing my baseline. There was a deficiency in “my own store”. A sign of weakness.

It took me many Sunday-nights of loneliness to realize I was deluding myself. Despite my simultaneously Spartan and romantic ideal of independent self-reliance, place did affect my well-being. A lot.

Environmental mismatches are real

If the developed man can be content no matter where he goes, then it follows (I thought) that location should have no effect on my well-being.

For instance, wherever I go, I should be able to find some like-minded comrades around, right?

Not so fast.

Environments have different characteristics, and the I’ll-find-my-niche-everywhere thought neglects the fact that some areas have a better ‘fit’ with my personality than others.

Here’s Harvard psychologist Brian Little:

[There probably are] strong pressures to migrate elsewhere on individuals who are living in cities that are discordant with their own personality. It is unlikely that someone transplanted to New York City who is affable, closed-minded, and devoid of any trace of neuroticism is likely to fare well in the Big Apple. Far better, perhaps, that he flies off to Fargo.” — Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being:

Personalities differ, and these personalities with the world in different ways. The match between the way you are and place can do a lot to help or hurt your quality of life.

And that’s just the beginning.

Environments own us (unless we own them)

Our surroundings affect us in so many more ways that are initially apparent to us. In fact,

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. — James Clear

Environment is one of the most important factors influencing us. It’s an invisible presence — subtle but incredibly powerful. If we don’t control it, it controls us.

For example, in Connected, sociologist Nicholas Christakis shares research revealing that

If your friends are obese, the chances that you are obese is 45%higher. If your friends friend is obese, your risk of obesity is 25% higher. And if your friend’s friend’s friend, someone you probably don’t even know, is obese, your probability of being obese is 10% higher.

How can this extend to three degrees of separation, to people I don’t even know? I don’t want that. I’m independent.

Or am I?

What explains this ripple-effect is, I think, that our environment determines what we consider to be normal.

One mechanism at play is that you’ll adopt habits which are common in your surroundings. When you’re newfound colleagues have a drink at lunchtime — as is not uncommon in Southern or Eastern Europe, where you’ve, say, just found a new job — you’ll start doing it, too.

But it’s not just overt behavior, arising for seemingly autonomous choices, that our peer group shapes more profoundly than I’d like to admit.

For instance, humans, by their very nature, copy the facial expressions and emotions they’re exposed to. We can’t help it. Our mirror neurons make us do it. So as long as there are some fellow homo sapiens regularly entering your visual field, which feelings you experience is partially determined by how they feel.

There’s emotional contagion taking place in human populations, and you can’t avoid that.

To illustrate, here’s Christakis again, explaining how emotional contagion leads to what he calls “happiness clusters”:

[In any social network, there are] clusters of happy and unhappy people, again, spreading to three degrees of separation. … So to invoke another metaphor, if you imagine social networks as a kind of vast fabric of humanity — I’m connected to you and you to her, on out endlessly into the distance — this fabric is actually like an old-fashioned American quilt, and it has patches on it: happy and unhappy patches.

Especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment, your ‘patch’. This social force goes way beyond peer pressure, because it dictates your behavior and feelings without you even noticing that it does.

I had to admit: independence is a myth.

Environment determines unconsciousness, and unconsciousness matters most

Your subconscious determines 95% percent of your behavior.

In an inspiring article, Benjamin Hardy explains how your “normal” life reflects the level of your subconscious mind, and your subconscious reality — what is “normal” to you — is (as you’ve probably guessed by now) mainly determined by your environment:

Your external environment is the ultimate feedback loop. It is telling you, very clearly, what is “normal” to you. — Benjamin Hardy

What our environment considers normal is the unspoken that shapes our behavior and our thinking.

In a beautiful passage, Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard once wrote

Philosophers have been concerned for a long time about how we understand the meanings of words, but we have not paid enough attention to the fact that it is so hard not to. It is nearly impossible to hear the words of a language you know as mere noise. And this has implications for the supposed privacy of human consciousness. For it means that I can always intrude myself into your consciousness. All I have to do is talk to you in the words of a language you know, and in that way I can force you to think. The space of linguistic consciousness is essentially public, like a town square. You might happen to be alone in yours, but I can get in anytime.

(I totally deserve bonus claps for coherently quoting self-improvement and academic philosophy in the same section.)

Notice that Korsgaard’s point about how consciousness is not ‘closed off’ extends even wider. As Hardy and Christakis tell us, it’s not only the space of linguistic consciousness that is not so private as it may appear to be ‘from the inside’. Emotional consciousness — if that’s a thing — is even more vulnerable to intrusion by others. I don’t even have to speak your language to get in. Others influence it as soon as we unconsciously recognize their facial expressions and non-verbal behavior. We transmit emotions, attitudes and beliefs to each other continuously.

Which ones we expose ourselves to is crucial.

Don’t let it depend on proximity or chance or on how it has always been, but consciously plan which opinions, attitudes and life-philosophies you do and do not allow in your life. Instead, spend a lot more time crafting, nourishing, sustaining the contexts you spend time navigating.

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with

If our environment shapes which emotions we experience and what we unconsciously consider to be normal behavior, goals, beliefs, and attitudes then Jim Rohn was right and we really are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.

The people you spend the most time with shape who you are. They determine what conversations dominate your attention. They affect to which attitudes and behaviors you are regularly exposed. Eventually you start to think like they think and behave like they behave.

As DARREN HARDY writes in The Compound Effect:

“According to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard,[the people you habitually associate with] determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.”

(Does anyone know whether DARREN HARDY and Benjamin Hardy are family? Would be so cool.)

Who you are around — what they’ve got you thinking, saying, doing and becoming — sets the course of your life.

Consequently, the dream in your heart may be bigger than the environment in which you find yourself. Sometimes you have to get out of that environment to see that dream fulfilled.

The takeaway

The emotions we experience, the opinions we have, the goals we set, unconsiousness plays a huge role in that.

The people in your life reflect back to you the level of your subconscious. And the way we experience the world depends on the network we reside in.

It’s a dangerous illusion that our happiness, productivity and beliefs are things we arrived at completely independently. By contrast, if anything, other people are a much stronger force than our ‘autonomous’ — ahem — will.

There’s also an opportunity here. As Niklas Göke points out:

“Often, changing your perspective is the simplest way to change your life.”

And, guess what, the easiest way to change your perspective is to change your environment. Yet, we hardly recognize this as a relevant variable when we make our life decisions.

Life is a game and if you want to win, play the game in an environment that favors you.

Looking outside of yourself for more joy and success is not weak. It’s smart.

There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more half-baked connections between self-help and philosophy, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

Thanks to Danny Forest and Michael Thompson

Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. Reconsidering the obvious. Chasing interestingness. Get good ideas that make you think:

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