Environment – our context for living

A basic law of organic life states: every living thing interacts with its environment to get its need met. This is a ‘given’. In other words we are interacting with our physical, social, personal, non-physical and even virtual environment all the time. And while our mind may be elsewhere, part of our brain is scanning the environment, mostly below our awareness, for the opportunity to satisfy an innate need, often one of four basic ones – food, love, sex and achievement.

Of these four needs, you will notice that only one, food, is a physical one, and deprive the organism of this and it will die. The others are non-physical or emotional needs, and while the organism – in this case – humans will not die without them, they will suffer distress. Humans have more in mind than just staying alive. So often the reason life-support is switched off is not because the person can’t be kept alive, but because there is little point in living if there is no chance of meaningful interaction. While survival is important, for humans it is not the main game – they need to interact with their environment to flourish.

If a person displays signs of distress – emotionally charged or agitated, drained of purpose, bereft of joy, suffering low mood or generally not flourishing in their interaction with their environment – according to this law, it comes down to one of two things: poor environment, or insufficient interaction with it. Usually the latter.

Some environments are poor in their capacity to provide opportunity for emotional needs to be met. A situation of constant threat (an abusive relationship for example) will reduce the chance for people living in that climate of fear to flourish.  Their needs for love, connection, privacy, control and autonomy, all important human needs, will have little chance of being met.

Other environments may appear ‘poor’ to one person, and be fine for another. If you have seen the movie Samson and Delilah one could be tempted to explain Samson’s petrol sniffing in the context of limited opportunities for anything else in his environment. Delilah, however, lives in the same environment and has a rich source of meaning and connection. Her behaviour is purposeful (artwork) and caring for her grandmother provides her with a sense of significance. So, it is not necessarily the environment per se, but one’s perception of it that matters.

Given that for most of us, our environment is neither abusive nor an outback settlement, most emotional distress can be attributed to the lack of interaction with it. And while these needs are mostly innate, the successful interaction skills required for western society are not. They are skills that have to be learned by good parenting, positive peer relationships, and, especially during formative years, a supportive and encouraging circle of friends. If the individual has missed out on these vital interaction skills – and it could be their environment prevented or hindered their development – they can be taught later in life. Many of the people I see for therapy are in this category, and given direction and mentoring, can become fluent in negotiating their environment in order to flourish again. The basic law of organic life is a useful starting point to this success.

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Merv was a teacher, trainer and therapist using the Human Givens approach to emotional health. He is the first Australian qualified in this revolutionary treatment method, and since retiring from private practice, spreads his time between running an online course in psychotherapy and sailing his yacht.

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