Everyone is influenced by society. We can’t help it. We like to believe that we are free and autonomous individuals, but the truth is parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, and religious figures play a huge role in the decisions we make and how we choose to live our lives.
At an early age, we need guidance before we can learn how to live in the world on our own. Unfortunately, during this time we can get a lot of ideas stuck in our head that aren’t necessarily helpful or true.
It’s important to question what we learn from society and what society expects from us. Parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, and religious figures may have our best intentions at heart, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know what is good for each one of us individually.
“You have to go to college.”
For some jobs you need to go to college and get a degree, but a lot of jobs don’t actually require a degree at all. In fact, most jobs that people get these days are based on who you know or past job experience. Employers care more about the skills you have and if you can get the job done, not your major or GPA.
College can be a great and valuable experience, but the myth that everyone needs to go to college just isn’t true. Some of the most productive members of our society – like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs – were all college dropouts.
College may not be for you. Sometimes it’s better to just dive into the workforce and start getting real world experience, rather than spend another 4 years locked in a classroom, only to be left with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and no work experience.
“You have to get married.”
Another expectation of society is that we eventually get married. This is seen as the normal and typical lifestyle, and individuals who choose not to get married are seen as weird, or as if something is wrong with them.
We know today that almost 50% of marriages end in divorce. People feel pressured to settle down with a partner (especially within a certain age range), and this leads people to make rash decisions that they later regret.
Marriage isn’t necessary a lifestyle that fits everyone’s personality. It’s important that we don’t turn it into one of those things that we “need” to do to make others happy.
“You have to have kids.”
Similar to marriage, it is expected that we one day settle down and start a family. Many people see procreation as one of the sole purposes of life, but it isn’t necessarily something that everyone has a desire for.
Much of adult life is centered around raising kids, so it’s hard not to feel the pressure to conform to this lifestyle. Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how someone would even live their life without being married or having kids, but there are other alternatives available – if we so choose.
If you want to have kids, then have them. If you don’t, then don’t. But just be sure you are making these important decisions for yourself and not just following what everyone else is doing.
“You have to settle for a career.”
A lot of people think that they choose a career out of college and then they are stuck with that job for the rest of their lives. This doesn’t have to be the case.
In our changing economic world, it’s actually better to be open to multiple types of jobs, rather than just limit ourselves to what we’ve always known.
The truth is people can successfully change their career if they are adaptable and willing to learn new skills. So if we aren’t happy with the direction of our professional lives, it’s possible to try a different course.
“You have to obey all authority.”
Whether we are at home, school, work, church, or wherever, society makes it a big deal that we obey the authorities that be.
From an early age I heard the mantra, “Think for yourself. Question authority” and I began practicing it. I was surprised to find how much of authority was unjustified and irrational once I started questioning it and thinking about it critically.
Of course, sometimes authority is justified and rational – but it’s important that we never follow it blindly.
A lot of the times people follow orders simply because “rules are rules,” but if we always did that then we’d never progress as a society. Think about most of the greatest movements in history and you’ll find that most of them wouldn’t have been possible if everyone obeyed authority and never questioned it.
“You have to fit your stereotype.”
We learn so much about our culture from movies, music, television, books, video games, and other forms of entertainment.
Through this lens of society, we are conditioned to accept certain stereotypes about people of different races, genders, religions, occupations, and other walks of life.
We believe in these stereotypes so strongly that sometimes we feel we need to conform to them ourselves. We wrongly believe that we need to have certain hobbies, wear certain clothes, or do certain jobs that are only associated with our race or gender. As a result we become stuck in a box that we can’t get out of.
However, the truth is we are all individuals with our own unique differences, so we should try our best to avoid these stereotypes as much as possible and instead just be ourselves.
“You have to own a lot of stuff to be happy.”
Our society can be very materialistic. Many people have the impression that if they want to be happy they must own a lot of expensive things like big screen TVs, a nice house, an iPhone, or a new car.
However, recent research in psychology is clear that money cannot buy happiness. Individuals who are wealthy are just as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as anyone else.
As it turns out, there are other values in the world than just material wealth, like self-esteem and relationships. Therefore people who only focus on their possessions are going to have a hard time finding authentic happiness, despite what society may have taught them.
“You have to be religious to be a good person.”
One belief among a lot of people in our society is that you must be religious to be a good person. In other words, if you don’t go to church, temple, or synagogue – or you don’t subscribe to any of the major religions – then you must have no values or morals in life.
While it’s true that a lot of people learn good behavior through religion, it’s not necessary to be a good person.
Many secular humanists hold the same values as religious people: kindness, compassion, and altruism. They just don’t feel the need to follow an organized religion or believe in God to practice these values.
Find yourself. Follow your own heart and mind.
The point of this whole article is that you need to find yourself. Follow your own heart and mind, don’t conform to anything just because that’s what society expects from you.
Learn how to be your best self in The Science of Self Improvement.