Making the World a Little Bit Better

Golden Gate Bridge Sketch

For the past few days, I’ve been reading an excellent new book: The Tipping Point, by Malcom Gladwell. Despite the relative wordiness of the book, it’s an incredibly great read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their life (and the lives of those around you).

The subject of the book is something I find particularly interesting: why do some things become popular? Why do people suddenly love a certain musician – why does a book become mainstream – why does one company become a household name while others die out? These are some pretty interesting questions.

When I started reading the book, this is what I expected to learn. What I discovered, however, was something much more important: how you can directly affect your own life and the lives of those around you by changing your environment.

Context Matters

Generally, we humans are horribly bad at being context aware. When I’m out having dinner at a restaurant, and overhear a person at the table next to me treating the waiter rudely, I tend to jump to conclusions rather quickly:

  • This person doesn’t have manners.
  • This person is rude to everyone.
  • I can’t believe this person is in a relationship! What is their partner thinking!?
  • This person is a bad person.

What I’ve done, you see, is immediately classify this person as being a bad person – I’ve narrowed their entire life down to a single boolean value: good or bad.

As it turns out, however, people aren’t just boolean values! People are incredibly dynamic, and context means everything.

Numerous studies done over the past few years show just how much of a role environment plays in human behavior. In the right situation, even the most cherished ideals you hold can be reversed – and it often happens without you even realizing it!

If you take a child from a bad neighborhood with a good family, and compare their grades with those of a child from a good neighborhood with a bad family, the child with the bad family wins out every time – the exact opposite of what most people would assume – but why?

The reason is that context plays an enormous role in behavior. Regardless of whether or not you have a great family (caring, loving, supportive) – if your neighborhood and community are bad (lots of crime, poor influences, etc.) – the odds are unfortunately not in your favor.

The societal pressure of your environment is a much stronger influence than most people realize.

If you live in a good neighborhood, there are many environmental factors which lead you to a better and more successful life:

  • Less crime in your environment.
  • Better schools.
  • Better role models and peers.
  • A different sense of what constitutes a normal life.

If you live in a bad neighborhood, there are many factors which might lower the quality of your life:

  • More crime.
  • Worse schools.
  • Poor role models.
  • A different sense of what constitutes a normal life.

If you take even the most loving person and throw them into a war zone, they will act as if they’re at war. The opposite is also true.

Environment is everything.

Improving Your Life

Now that we know context is important, and that it directly affects people’s behavior, we can use this knowledge to our advantage to directly improve our own lives.

Let’s say you want to lose weight. There are obviously several ways to do this:

  • Reduce your caloric intake.
  • Increase your base metabolic rate by gaining muscle.
  • Increase the amount of calories you burn each day through exercise.
  • Change the foods you eat.

While losing weight in any form requires a certain amount of self discipline, since we know that we are greatly influenced by our environment, we can make this process a bit easier by changing our immediate environment!

  • You can go through your pantry and remove all non-diet friendly foods.
  • You can precook (and pack) suitable meals for eating at work on your lunch break.
  • You can politely decline any friends who ask you to join them at restaurants and bars where sticking to your diet will not be easy.

If you surround yourself with things that make it easier for you to make a positive choice – then you will find that you make more positive choices.

The same rule applies to all other ventures as well.

When I need to get quality programming time in, I make it hard to do anything else:

  • I’ll go to a co-working space for the day, where I have no distractions.
  • I’ll wear headphones and listen to music to insulate all outside noise.
  • I’ll bring food with me so I’m not tempted to leave for long stretches of time to go grab lunch or dinner.

By putting myself into an environment where it’s hard not to work, I’m making it easier for me to finish my work and accomplish what I set out to do.

Improving the World

While it’s certainly possible to improve your own life by changing your immediate environment – is it possible to affect the lives of other people as well? The answer is a definite yes.

The rules work much the same way as they do for you personally – but on a slightly larger scale. People tend to act differently based on their surroundings.

If you’re walking along a quiet street with well maintained sidewalks, gardens, and trees, you’ll feel much more relaxed and at ease than you would if you were walking through a quiet street surrounded by old crumbling buildings covered in graffiti.

I’m also willing to bet that if you were walking through an old neighborhood, covered in graffiti and surrounded by old buildings with broken windows – that you’d be a lot more cautious of people you run into. You’d be on edge. You’d be afraid. You probably wouldn’t act the same way you would if you bumped into someone in a nicer area.

So, with this in mind, we can improve not only our lives, but the lives of other people as well – by just improving our surroundings! And luckily, there are tons of ways to do this.

Here are some suggestions that require almost no effort on your part:

  • When you walk down the street, smile and say hello to everyone you pass. Studies have shown that smiling is contagious, and makes people feel more comfortable, safe, and happy than they would otherwise.
  • If you see trash on the side of the road, or in any public place, pick it up and throw it away. People tend to treat areas that are already clean and nice with more care than they do for places that are already dirty.

If you want to do something more, and are willing to exert more effort, you could also try some of the following:

  • Start a local meetup and get people involved in something you find interesting. Making and maintaining friendships is one way to keep people interested and motivated in their own personal development.
  • Join your local city council and encourage the city to fix poorly maintained public places: renovate parks, spend money fixing and improving streets, etc.

The Idea

The main idea here is that by making even the smallest of environmental changes, you can positively affect the lives of other people – maybe by making them feel more safe and relaxed, or by making them smile and feel a tiny bit happier as they go about their day.

If even a small number of people consciously put forward effort to improve their surroundings, great things can happen.

One of my personal habits (for a long time) has been to try and make other people happy in some small way. After reading The Tipping Point, I was surprised to learn how easy it can actually be! There’s no need to wait, if you want to make the world a better place, just get out there and do it!