In our world of rapid change, our mindset needs to measure up, says Peter Dingle PhD
“The ability to accomplish is all in the mind.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda
“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
Have you ever wondered why a problem seems to get worse despite the gravity of the problem and despite how many billions or even trillions of dollars we spend on it each year? Billions of dollars are spent on treating cancer every year and there are no reductions in the death rates from cancer. Once you take the ability to manipulate statistics out of the equation then there is no increase in length of survival. This is an example of poor thinking as we know up to 90% of cancers are caused by lifestyle and environmental factors. It seems more appropriate to reduce the environmental influences including diet and lifestyle factors.
How we think not only afflicts our bodies with cancer and clogged arteries but also eats away at our social system and the environment. The major disease of the 21st century is not cancer or heart attack, increasing crime or road rage or even enhanced greenhouse warming or species extinction. These are all just the symptoms and if we continue to treat the symptoms we will never solve the problems. At best you will reduce one of the symptoms but another more urgent and critical problem will immediately arise. The disease is the state that got us there. The major disease is how we think.
We could cut down our greenhouse emissions, reduce energy waste, reduce the levels of cancer and CVD by 30% to 50% if we reduced our meat consumption by 50% and ate more vegetables and fruit instead. But it takes a change in thinking. Another example of how poor thinking leads to cancer and CVD is that negative attitudes lead to stress, depression, pessimism and negative actions such as no exercise, poor eating, and an absence of all the other beneficial activities in life.
We filter everything through our minds, we create generalisations to explain the things around us and we filter the information we receive through these generalisations. These generalisations make it easy to participate in modern life, however we need to regularly question generalisations that we exist by, our belief systems and the way we think. These generalisations were great for the hunter-fisher-gatherer 100,000 years ago but do not work in our modern world.
The way we think and our self talk not only limits how we think about ourselves but also what we can achieve.
Examples of poor thinking include:
Short sighted or short-term thinking
Silver bullet solutions (technology)
Self centred, self absorbed and egocentric thinking
Focus on scarcity
Thinking too much
Even critical thinking and expert thinking can become poor thinking. We see the world in terms of 'yes or no', 'black or white', 'do or don’t', but it is really about infinite possibilities and shades of all colours.
One approach to solving problems is technology or what I call the 'silver bullet solution'. But technology has never solved a major problem without creating another one, sometimes even worse than the first. There is no silver bullet. We have improved the efficiency of the car engine but now consume more litres per kilometre than ever before because the size of the car has increased and there are more cars on the road. Families are smaller but the cars are bigger and there are more of them.
Short-term thinking suggests that we can ignore the problem or that someone in the future will solve the problem, maybe the kids when they grow up. My own research shows that not only are the problems getting worse as we learn more about them but also the kids, as they grow up, become just as big a part of the problem as we are. At the ages of 10 to 13, kids are very environmentally aware and very active. But that soon changes as they get caught up in all the same busyness of life and poor ways of thinking.
Linked in with short-term thinking are also vested interests. It is common to ask, “What am I going to get out of it in the short term?” no matter what it does to the environment or society or if it is really needed. So much of the medical system is now run under the direction of the pharmaceutical companies and so much literature is published in the scientific journals and even the courts on this bias. Everyone knows it yet still it seems to be an accepted practice.
Expert thinking and narrow thinking are also major problems. Over the last 50 years we have seen an explosion of information and along with it experts who know so much about one thing they cannot see the bigger picture. The more we focus on the smaller picture the more we miss the big picture - a bit like trying to look at the moon through a microscope. We have so-called experts in medicine, such as cardiac surgeons who know little about diet and lifestyle impacts on heart disease and die of heart disease at an age earlier than most. These are the experts. After a stroke, a friend of mine aged 48 had to stop seeing his stroke specialist who died of a stroke at 42.
Underlying all this is materialistic thinking. There is such a push from private industry and governments alike to buy and consume to improve our lives or for the sake of the economy that we have lost sight of what is really important in our lives. The simplest way to put this is that you come into this world with nothing and you will leave it for the next one with nothing. What we need first of all is clean air, water and food. Then comes a safe place to live and a sense of security. Then comes family and friends. These are our needs; the rest are wants. We have few needs but many wants although most people find it hard to distinguish between the two.
The “me” or self centred thinking
Unfortunately our society supports a very immature mentality when it comes to gratitude. We need to reassess this. As we age we go through a process of thinking about:
Me, and my friends
Me, as part of my family
Me, as part of society
Me, as part of the world
Many of our top paid professionals encourage the “me, alone” attitude. We pay people huge sums of money to focus on themselves and then we justify it. Then for those in the giving professions, such as teachers and nurses, there is a mere pittance compared to other professional colleagues. In a society that rewards people for being selfish, we end up with health, social and ecological dysfunction.
I have been fortunate to have interviewed around 100 first year university students each year. With these interviews it became apparent that the motivation to study environmental sciences came from their love of the environment and their desire to protect it and, for some, to work in it. By contrast, my work with students in other areas has often highlighted their drive for the career and money they want.
By contrast, positive modes of thinking include:
Eco-centric or ecological thinking
Fortunately, many people as they age start to realise the problems with the way things are going and start to change their thinking. Research on ageing has shown that as we age we go through different phases of thinking. The thinking begins with a focus on the self and for most, but not all, broadens to “us” and even “them…”, then later to the broader social and environmental systems.
Those with narrow, self focused thinking who remain so most of their lives tend to have higher mortality rates. The research on centenarians, those who reach 100 in good health, show that they more often than not have a broader approach to their thinking with a strong focus on community and environment. As we age we become more community, socially and environmentally oriented in our thinking. There are numerous accounts of top business people stating that they want to give back more now that they have retired. None says they wish they had a busier life or spent more time at the office.
21st century challenges demand more of us than might feel comfortable. But in order to meet them and flourish, we need to change our mindset from the negative and self centred to the positive and holistic.
Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.