Where do you stand on the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate?
What do you think makes us who we are: Is it the genes we inherit from our biological parents? Is it our environment and the way we’re raised? Or is it some combination of these factors — and, if so, which factor has the biggest influence?
You could make a convincing argument for either position: On the Nature side, you’ve probably heard stories of twins raised separately who went on to live remarkably similar lives. On the Nurture side, you can clearly see the effect of environment and upbringing by observing how frequently people conform to expectations of the society/class and family in which they’re raised (or by watching Michael Apted’s Up Series).
It’s a fascinating debate, but as I’ve pondered this issue over the years, both sides have made me uncomfortable. I don’t want to think of myself as a blank slate, like a lump of clay that’s molded by other people and external forces entirely beyond my control. But I also don’t want to think that my entire life is predetermined by some genetic code that was set in place before I was even born!
It wasn’t until I watched Oprah’s interview with happiness researcher Shawn Achor that I finally put my finger on what exactly made me uncomfortable about the nature-vs.-nurture debate: both sides are disempowering!
Whether your life is determined by genetics or environment, the same underlying premise holds true: You have no say in the matter! You’re not the master of your destiny! You don’t get to determine your own life!
(Or, as one t-shirt humorously — but depressingly — puts it: “Nature or Nurture…either way, it’s your parents’ fault!”)
But what’s the alternative?
Does this mean that we’re doomed to spend our lives like puppets, controlled by others? Not at all! To a very large extent, you can still determine the quality of your life, regardless of your genes and upbringing. The key can be summarized in a single word: FOCUS.
(The judges would also accept appreciation, and you’d probably get partial credit for variety.) 🙂
Focus on 40
This is not to say that nature and nurture don’t play a role in our lives. They do — quite a big one. In fact, researchers (including Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness) estimate that more than half of our happiness is determined by genetics and environment (with the emphasis on the former).
According to studies, approximately 50% of happiness is determined by genetics, while only about 10% is determined by external circumstances (such as significant gains or losses in our finances or romantic relationships).
Yes, these factors make up a lot of your life, but that still leaves a whopping 40% that’s within your control — determined by how you think and behave. And focusing on this 40% can make the difference between happiness and depression, success and failure, empowerment and disempowerment.
Serenity and Sanity
So, here are your options:
- You can worry yourself sick and drive yourself nuts fretting over all the things that aren’t within your control (including your genetics, your upbringing, the past, and all the externals beyond your sphere of influence).
- You can focus on the things that are within your control (such as appreciating what’s already in your life, trying interesting new activities, taking inspired action toward meaningful goals, and getting enough sleep).
As is so often the case, it all comes back to the Serenity Prayer: finding the serenity to accept the things you cannot change (such as your genetics and your past), the courage to change the things you can (such as what you focus on and how you focus on it), and the wisdom to know the difference.
And what a difference it is: it can mean the difference between a disempowered life spent stuck in the past, bemoaning the present, and worrying about the future vs. one in which each day offers new opportunities for joy and growth.
A Third Option
So, the next time you’re faced with that age-old debate of Nature vs. Nurture, remember that there’s a third option: you can focus on what is within your control, take steps to make that as positive as you can, and appreciate all of it!