Originally published 2/25/2017
Humans are a most fascinating creature. We have evolved, established ourselves firmly at the top of the food chain, and come to inhabit most of our largely hostile planet. The human body and mind are incredibly adaptable; just look at one winner of The Biggest Loser if you don’t believe me. And yet, while all of these feats are no doubt impressive, they have created the insidious illusion that we can conquer and control everything in our lives.
There is a phrase in Swedish that I always repeat when I find myself in cold weather: “Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder,” which translates to, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” For years, I have admired this phrase as a testament to the power of mindset and our ability to take action to change our lot in a set of given circumstances. When I recite this quote, I feel myself becoming more resilient against the elements, and I choose to focus my attention on the positives, often how grateful I am to have a thick jacket and the accessories necessary to shield myself. I think this analogy is poignant when we look at our personal circumstances as well. If we find ourselves in a less than ideal environment, we can choose to play the victim, or we can change our mindsets and take action to harden ourselves against the parts of the situation that are out of our control. But as much as I love this phrase, I have come to realize that in fact, there most certainly is such a thing as bad weather.
We are the product of our environments. Just as the amount of melanin in our skin changed as a function of where we and our ancestors settled, over time, we too adapt to our current conditions. It can often be hard to point out the subtle changes we undergo because it is harder to see small, incremental changes, but they are there. If I spend time around someone who has a negative outlook and complains constantly, I also begin to notice the negative things around me and my demeanor changes. Conversely, if I’m surrounded by people who smile all the time, I tend to feel happier and smile more myself. These examples may seem trivial, but many of these small changes in our trajectory can have profound impact on our final destination. It may seem obvious to say, “Well just don’t let yourself be brought down by those around you,” or “Don’t take things so personally,” but just as we cannot simply will our natural complexion to get darker to better combat the sun, shielding ourselves against negative external influences may not prove so easy.
Not only can we train our bodies and mind to adapt to given circumstances, so too can we rationalize the most illogical thoughts or behaviors. We tell ourselves our job won’t be so stressful if we can only make it through this next project, despite the fact that we’ve been chronically stressed for years. We choose to believe our relationships are happy and healthy because they once were. We craft realities that match the stories we want to believe. In some cases, there is truly nothing within our power to change the reality, so this ability can serve us and help us persevere. Just as Victor Frankl discusses in Man’s Search for Meaning, the stories we craft can give us respite from a living nightmare or give us hope to hold on for a better future. But just as an elephant changed to a small stake its whole life believes it cannot escape, we often construct our own prisons unnecessarily.
What am I suggesting? I think it’s critical to recognize the power of mindset, and our ability to adapt to a wide variety of climates and situations has enabled our species to take a place of immense power and potential. But sometimes, rather than simply learn to construct shelter against the blizzard, we’d be much better off moving to Fiji.