“What do you do staying home all day?” asked my elderly neighbour, who seemed to be more anxious about my lifestyle when I started to work-from-home in 2005. He used to always see me in my shorts, walking my dog three times a day, gardening, going out with my wife to the cinema on a Monday morning and more. He was itching to ask me, how could I afford to be leading what according to him was a ‘retired life’ at such a young age. I was 37 then. “This is the age to work hard and earn some money which will be useful to lead a happy life in your old age” he said. He was not pleased when I told him that one must enjoy life when you still have the energy and not when you are old and weak. I don’t blame him for that line of thinking. I get puzzled looks from the participants of my seminars as well when I tell them that I work when I feel like and only do about 5 days a month. They feel it can’t be true and I am just pulling a fast one on them. “How can you work just 5 days a month and still earn enough money to lead a comfortable life?” used to be their query during the seminar breaks. I don’t blame them either.
I want to explore the influence of ‘social conditioning and social pressures’ and their impact in bringing ‘harmony in life’.
Let me narrate a another story.
“There was a young man who used to sit under a tree near a construction site and spend time relaxing and watching the work being done. He seemed to enjoy looking at people toiling away in the blazing heat while he lazed around eating fruits and home cooked meal under the shade. One day, the Supervisor of the site walked up to him and said “Young man, I see you come in daily and waste your entire day sitting under the tree doing nothing. You look strong and healthy, why don’t you do some work instead of wasting your time like this?” What do you think will happen if I work daily, asked the young man. “You will earn a lot of money” replied the supervisor. What do you do with so much money? Asked the youngster. “When you earn a lot you can save up enough to one day enjoy life” replied the Supervisor. What do you think I am doing now? Asked the youngster. Now this seems extreme, but I hope I am able to impress the point about how social conditioning works on us all the time. The supervisor was afflicted with the condition that one needs to work for ‘x’ number of years and earn ‘x’ amount of money before one retires and then spend the rest of the life enjoying the fruits of labor. Here the big assumption is that ‘work’ and ‘money’ is the pain you have to undergo to enjoy life. That work and life are exact opposites.
Just think of it, it is almost like saying the opposite of ‘life’ is ‘death’. When you talk about work-life balance as separate and opposites, isn’t that what it actually means. That work is a pain.
I blame this on ‘social conditioning’ which has a deep impact on the way we lead our life. It constantly puts pressure on us to follow certain set patterns laid out by the society on all dimensions of our life; money, work, family, social relationships, health, leisure, self-development and spiritual.
I believe that in order to be in charge of you own life and have an outstanding life, you have to understand and be able to rise above what social psychologists call social conditioning.
Social conditioning is the process of training individuals in society to have certain beliefs, behaviours, desires and emotional reactions, which are approved by society in general or by certain groups within it.
Your social conditioning begins when you’re just a small baby, and it’s most acute during your childhood and teenage years, but it carries its effect and goes on to influence your entire life. It’s carried out by parents, teachers, peers and people in your community, by the books you read, the media, the spiritual discourses and the advertisements you see.
It often works by rewarding certain behaviours, thus reinforcing them, and punishing other behaviours. It is our so called normal. This is the case of classical conditioning which is sometimes is even used to train animals like the ‘Pavlov’ experiment.
But the most powerful mechanism of social conditioning is the repetition of the same simple messages, sometimes thousands of times over long periods, until the mind gives in and absorbs them completely.
These messages can take explicit forms, like when a parent tells you plainly what you should and shouldn’t do. Or implicit messages, like when a commercial shows you a well-dressed guy that girls swoon all over, thus suggesting indirectly that if you dress well, girls will swoon all over you too.
And the result of all this is a person who conforms to the norms of ideal living, in the society and community they live in.
Mind you it is so powerful that it is difficult to extricate yourself from it. I myself learnt it the hard way after repeatedly falling back into the so-called ‘normal’ or ‘socially conditioned’ way of living.
Problem with social conditioning
I realize that social conditioning is almost a form of indoctrinating and herding people into having certain beliefs, behaviors, desires and emotional reactions. This means it can be used to train people to have any kind of responses, positive or negative, rational or irrational. It makes me feel that much of the social conditioning we get exposed to today takes our lives in an overall negative direction. Deliberately or not, the society we live in instills in us many horribly wrong ideas, ineffective behaviors, toxic desires and unhealthy emotional reactions.
With the proliferation of social media in every aspect of our life the problem has only been accentuated.
Examples of bad social conditioning
I’ve come to realize that many of the most common beliefs, behaviors, desires and emotional reactions that society conditions us to have are dreadfully bad for us. Here are some key examples of common yet very poor social conditioning, concerning the major aspects of life.
Career and finances
The society we live in encourages blind consumerism and materialism. “People chase jobs and money to spend on shit they don’t need” We learn to work long hours, conform to norms, seek job security, be conscientious, perform at higher levels each day and ask very little for ourselves as we believe that one day it will all be worthwhile. People get so caught up in the race of reaching the top and earning more and more that they stop enjoying the journey. They don’t even realize that many years have passed by in this pursuit. The common refrain I hear from people is “I’ve been so busy working that I didn’t realize that my kids have all grown up and how I now miss their growing up years”.
People want to earn money because they are bombarded with messages about “100 destinations to visit before you die” from commercials that they often end up ‘dying’ before they visit these destinations.
Having a 6-pack ab, chiseled body, muscular look and great physical appearance has turned into an obsession of sorts. People end up spending excessive amounts of time, money and energy in pursuit of good health fads which impact other parts of their life. I’ve seen people obsessing over running half-marathon and full marathon and spending years training for it, just because of peer-pressure or some company has cleverly used it for their own promotion through sponsorship. The social conditioning on ‘fitness’ is so much that people don’t consider themselves fit if they don’t fit any of the so-called ideal fitness images which flash on the screen every day.
Now with so much of social media, people tend to measure their social health with the number of connections they have, the number of likes and comments they get for their posts. I’ve seen people spending excessive amount of time on social media only to increase the size of their network in the process forgetting the qualitative aspects of social contact. Frequently checking social media updates has become the biggest negative influence on our time mastery and achieving some balance.
Social conditioning is probably the strongest in the realm of spiritual and religious pursuits. Some of the beliefs and behaviours which we carry have been the result of years of sustained messaging by parents, teachers, community elders, preachers, yogis, gurus and the likes about what ‘spirituality’ means and should be in our life. People have ended up investing so much time to match these ideals that they either neglected or had little time for other parts of their life. It is so much so that ‘being spiritual’ and ‘career-oriented’ have been considered complete opposites. Something like ‘this or that’. If you are seen to be spending long time in your spiritual pursuits it is assumed that you have either earned enough and have fulfilled all your other responsibilities. My question is ‘why can’t we be spiritual and at the same time career minded?’
When it comes to leisure as well people get pressured by the societal norms of leisure activities. You have been told repeatedly about how you need to spend your time during leisure and what is the ideal way. Today, the best example of “leisure of pressure” is while on a holiday. People are under increasing pressure to click pictures and post all they have done during this period on social media. In this process they fail to enjoy the moment and at the end are more tired than rejuvenated.
Family and relationship
The biggest impact of social conditioning has come in the realm of family and relationship. The image of an ideal family and relationship is drilled into our mind from childhood and now with social media the pressure to post pictures of happy family and your relationship is so much more. It encourages superficial social relationships, based mainly on appearances, as well as constantly comparing ourselves to others and caring intensely about “what other people think of us”. This takes people away from the reality of their lives and encourages a life of falsehood and lies just so that you are in the game.
What does personal growth mean to you? Define and list the ways in which you would measure personal success and growth. Take some time to check, how much of it is influenced by the social conditioning you have been subjected to? You will find some answers to bring a semblance of harmony in your life.
How to rise above ‘social conditioning’?
- Don’t assume We like to believe that we are wise enough to be not influenced by bad social conditioning. That we never took or have been influenced by societies bad ideas and futile behaviours. You must start with the assumption that you have been exposed to repeated messaging and propaganda that does have and is influencing your social behaviour. Only when you acknowledge it that you will start exorcising the demons of social conditioning.
- Question Learn to question every idea which you have been conditioned to and is negatively impacting your life. For example, I had to question and rise above the idea that “One needs to go to a place of work (called office) which is away from home to earn a living”. This made me re-think the concepts of working and reduced considerable stress.
- Learn from expert sources who are different from the obvious as often they have ideas which are poles apart from what the society and mainstream preaches. Study a wide range of subjects and why not try to be “Jack of all trades and master of none”. Isn’t it an idea which you have been told not to follow?
- Leave your comfort zone step out and meet people and do things which are out of your comfort zone. They open up learning in different ways. The pressure of being around like-minded people is immense and we have been advocated about the benefits of the same. On the contrary you will find the greatest joy and life lessons come when you step out of those boundaries.
Limit your amount of exposure to bad social conditioning, by reducing contact with its sources. The benefits are incredible. As you free yourself from poor social conditioning, in effect you take charge of your own destiny and you enable yourself to take it in the direction you want.
You become more confident, more productive, more successful and much happier.