How our setting affects our frame of mind and ability to act
Not long ago, I took a walk in the Amazon. Dense undergrowth crowded the path. The sunlight barely penetrated the thick canopy overhead. Close heat pressed in and my clothes clung to my perspiring skin. As I pushed deeper and deeper into this claustrophobic setting, so my mind burrowed into a dark underworld. Thoughts of old mistakes and unkind deeds crowded in. For a short time, I became lost in circular contemplations and bitter regret. But, on emerging from the dense undergrowth, the mood lifted. A few days later, sailing along a gently winding river through the pampas, another traveller told me she’d felt exactly the same. Her thoughts had turned inwards in the jungle, taking her back down paths long overgrown and forgotten.
A profound change in outlook
A few weeks later, I visited the magnificent Colca Canyon in Peru. During a three day trek, I descended a thousand metres from the town of Cobanaconda down to the river Colca, and back up again. As I criss-crossed up and down the steep sides, the space of the canyon yawned between. Condors soared overhead in an azure sky. Looking out over this incredible vista, I found my thoughts skipping ahead to a future full of possibility. My mind busily hatched plans for tomorrow, next week, next year. Even though I was panting my way up hills with a backpack full of camping gear, I was full of light and energy.
States of mind
After this trip, I began to reflect on these very different feelings. Both landscapes had been amazing. Both were in stunning natural surroundings – albeit contrasting ones. Nothing in my situation had changed in the intervening period. And yet the essential nature of the setting had such an impact. The dense jungle sent my mind burrowing back into the tangled web of memory. The gaping canyon opened up the wide path of possible futures. It really hit home just how much of an influence setting has on our state of mind.
A change of scenery
Of course, a traveller can be lucky enough to find themselves in a succession of extreme settings in a short space of time. It’s easy to observe the difference they can make. It’s also much easier to change the setting when it doesn’t suit. We move on when we want to. If we don’t like a place, we find another. If only static life back home could be that simple. Well, perhaps it can.
I’m not suggesting that you need to run for the hills every time you’re feeling a little down – although, it certainly helps. For me, being aware of our settings and the way they impact our feelings is the first step to changing them. Consider the places where you spend most of your time. Are they conducive to an optimistic state of mind? Or do they oppress you. Thinking back to the spaces where I spent my time in London, I know which were the ones I found inspiring. And the ones I didn’t. I had my escape pods too – parks and green corners, great little cafes or quiet back streets.
Blogger and creator of The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin, explains how she finds inspiration from nature without having to travel far from home.
“Nature is impersonal, awe-inspiring, elegant, eternal. It’s geometrically perfect. It’s tiny and gigantic. You can travel far to be in a beautiful natural setting, or you can observe it in your backyard – or, in my case, in the trees lining New York City sidewalks, or in the clouds above skyscrapers.”
Of course, a lot of the time, it might seem that we don’t exercise that much choice over where we spend our time. Work environments are often less than inspiring – whether that’s a physical or social reality. If you find that the place you’re spending most of your working life is more of a jungle than a canyon, you have two simple options: change it, or leave it.
Does that sound like a harsh ultimatum? Maybe it is. It doesn’t stop it from being the truth. An environment that you have no power to change is not a place you should want to be.
Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm
counselled Abraham Lincoln. It’s great advice. Whatever it is you want from life, it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier if you base yourself somewhere friendly to your cause.
Setting vs mindset
There is another way of looking at all this. We might consider the power of our minds to overcome the influence of our environment. Of course, it’s possible. There’s plenty of precedent for it too. People all over the world overcome cramped or downright squalid settings to live fulfilled and happy lives. Others never rise above their immediate surroundings. Milton sums it up perfectly:
The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Although, I’ve always preferred Hamlet’s even more poetic offering: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
In a sense, that self-awareness didn’t help Hamlet. He couldn’t break out of those ‘bad dreams’, which in fact, became much more than dreams. Our ‘dreams’, or the way we conceive of the world, makes our universe. If we do let our darker thoughts manifest, then no end of heavenly surroundings will save us.
So does setting matter? Or is it all in the mind?
For sure, mindset is crucial. Transcendence is a beautiful thing. I, for one, strive for the day when no outer influence ripples the calm waters of my perceptions. Until then, I’m in need of a little help from the universe. Aren’t most of us?
The setting of any story instantly determines its genre, its conventions and its moods. Of course, our environments don’t have to define us. We can break out of them. But why take the path of most resistance? Once we surround ourselves with the places and the people that reflect our values and ambitions, we’re already one step further on the road to happiness.