Controlling Our Environment Can Be a Powerful Financial and Health Tool
Our habits are largely a product of our environment. In the 1970s, Canadian Psychologist Bruce Alexander conducted his famous Rat Park experiments, which turned the world of addiction on its head. He showed that, unlike previously thought, rats (and humans) only become addicted to destructive habits when their lives are devoid of entertainment and connection, addiction was a product of a boring, lonely life. Environment controls our actions. We are also seeing this in our own saturated environments. According to the American Pediatric Association, childhood obesity has tripled in the last 25 years. One of the main reasons that has brought about this is the precipitous rise in fast food advertisement. In children's shows, 50 percent of advertising is for unhealthy food. Scottish Psychologist Emma Boyland showed that exposure to fast food advertisements causes people to overeat unhealthy food, again, environment leads to behavior; destructive, consumerist behavior.
But our environment doesn't have to harm us, it can also be arranged in ways to help us, even if it doesn't seem so at the time. In my own country, the USA, during their most restrictive COVID lock-down, the average savings rate jumped from a measly 4% to a staggering 30%. It makes sense, the world was unable to purchase as much stuff as before, and we didn't need a lot either when we couldn't leave our homes. Where we are, physically and digitally, allows us access to certain behaviors, and discourages other behaviors.
That environment can control our behavior to devastating effect. 60% of people are overweight or obese in America and climbing. Even before COVID, most couldn't cover a surprise $400 bill. Amounts of anxiety and depression in college age students in the US has doubled in the last 8 years, largely from a world saturated with social media according to a massive study conducted by Psychology professor Jean Twenge at San Diego State University. Their environment is overwhelming their ability to be healthy, physically, mentally and financially.
But we can fight back. Once we understand the importance of environment, we can start to exert control on the world we live in to help fight against harmful actions and promote positive ones. It’s a 3 step process. Determine your values. What do you care about? Look at your environment and see what factors are harming your ability to promote your values, and which are helping. Start with your top 3 harmful actions that are promoted by your environment and what factors in your environment are influencing those actions. Then focus on the top 3 actions you want to do to help your values, and which environmental factors are already doing that but could be increased.
I know this works because I've done it on multiple occasions. When I moved to Dubai, I was influenced by advertisements on TV and social media, and I saw a lot of people with fancy cars and clothes around me. I had no idea where my money was going, but I knew I was spending a lot of it. So, I started minimizing my contact with advertisements by installing an ad blocker on my computer and not watching TV channels with ads, I started reading more books and getting ad free apps. I learned about the costs associated with luxury goods, learned the limited utility of fancy things. I started tracking my spending and made a budget based on that information and my values. I stopped regularly going to brunches. I moved to a smaller apartment closer to work. I took on more responsibility at work to get raises and learned skills that gave me valuable side hustles. I’ve doubled my savings rate since that first year in Dubai, and during lock-down, it was tripled, as environment again severely restricted my spending opportunities.
Another way this process has helped me is in my weight and health. For years, I always kept my house loaded with junk food and drinks. I was constantly exposed to thousands of ads for fast food, especially on the radio. When I got serious about my health after a childhood friend died of a heart attack at age 35, the first thing I did was give or throw away all the junk food and unhealthy drinks in my apartment, so that the things at hand were health promoting, low calorie and not processed foods. I stopped going to the liquor store to buy more. I stopped listening to the radio and just listened to music through my phone or podcasts where I fast forwarded through the ads. I learned about the many damaging effects of fast food on your physical and mental health. I lost 25 kg in 6 months and have kept it off.
But this is also not a “once and done” process. Our environment and bad habits are insidious, they creep back in without us really being aware. Try to do this process at least once a year. Re-examine your environment, look for ways to eliminate the negative influences in it and promote the good ones, and most importantly, take action. Stay educated and keep working towards living a life in line with your values.
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