Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

Activity 3B: Exploring your quality of life

In this activity the aim is to develop and use a range of interdisciplinary indicators that describe your quality of life.


Systems thinking and practice is not only about rational analysis. It is also about being able to deal with emotion – indeed, many complex environmental dilemmas are first interpreted through intuitive feelings rather than rational logic. So this exercise is principally about exploring whether the things that really matter to you are those that have the greatest environmental impact.

I would like you to go back to your modelling of your personal ecology and identify components which you are satisfied with as part of your life, and those components which you are not so happy about and might like to change.

In your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , I would like you to reflect on the following questions.

  1. Is the way you feel a totally internal event, or does it relate to your surroundings – the people, the environment?
  2. How much of how you feel is dependent on experiences, or issues, unrelated to your immediate surroundings?


One way of modelling the factors contributing to your quality of life is to consider it as an emergent property of the interaction between your mental models, your immediate environment, and the mental models of other people (whether engaged face-to-face, or 'virtually' through information and communication technologies). These relationships both enable and constrain the realisation of your personal goals, and these relationships may change depending on the timescale you use. For example, a personal relationship may feel extremely constraining at specific moments in time, but may be beneficial over the long term. This shows how difficult it is for people challenged by a number of issues influencing their quality of life to emerge out of their situation through reductionist means – there are rarely simple causes and affects or quick fixes. Low life satisfaction, an issue of increasing concern in modern societies, can result from the complex interaction of a range of factors and requires both personal mastery and systemic awareness to resolve.

This systemic awareness is now gaining significant formal recognition in the general field of 'well-being' research and practice. At the beginning of the 20th century, the new field of gestalt psychology developed, which was to have a significant interchange of ideas with the conceptual foundations of systems thinking. Gestalt psychology proposed that we perceive our environment as an irreducible whole, and not in terms of isolated events and experiences. The practical outcome of gestalt psychology has been gestalt therapy, where individuals focus on relational experiences within the immediate environmental and social context rather than focusing everything on the single individual. As the saying goes: 'You cannot clap with one hand'.

Family Systems Therapy is also a closely-related counselling approach which focuses on the feedback relationships amongst the primary social unit: the family. The significance of this family focus is that many dysfunctional patterns of behaviour are established within a family, and these are then replicated in society at large.

Another psychology discipline which has been significantly influenced by systems thinking is 'environmental psychology'. The focus of environmental psychology is to research a broader range of environments within which people find themselves and identify those that engender constructive and healthy relationships, and those that result in dysfunctional damaging behaviour. Environmental psychologists are against the classical approach to psychology:

One could accuse therapeutic psychology's exaggeration of the personal interior, and aggrandising of its importance, of being a systematic denial of the world out there, a kind of compensation for the true grandness its theory has refused to include and has defended against.... alterations in the 'external' world may be as therapeutic as alterations in any subjective feelings. The 'bad' place I am 'in' may refer not only to a depressed mood or an anxious state of mind; it may refer to a sealed-up office tower where I work, a set-apart suburban subdivision where I sleep, or the jammed freeway on which I commute between the two.

(Hillman, 1995)

Having read my response to this activity, how far do you think your quality of life indicators align themselves with the more systemic approaches to maintaining and/or improving one's quality of life?


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