We all like to think we’re special somehow, that there’s something uniquely “us” to distinguish our personhood from the rabble that isn’t us. And it makes sense, if only in that we are each of us an individual person. But what is “us?” Is it our bodies? Our minds? Is there even a distinction to be made?
For decades, studies aplenty have tried to answer these questions, tried to reassure us that we’re each a special snowflake, or else to wake us up to tell us we’re not. To an extent, both sides have legitimate findings.
This much is true: In all the world, no two people have had an identical experience to another. There are too many variables, covering too many different elements of life, for that to ever happen. That said, there are a lot of people who are very, very similar, and it’s because they share one or several things in common.
The following twenty are the most dominating factors influencing who you are, and who you'll become. Many are interrelated, some might be examples of correlation and not causation, but all of them at least share a strong link to the way we behave, altering our mood, memory, thinking, and health.
20 The Generation You Belong To
Not all people within a given generation will share the same values across the board, but there are certainly overall trends that give each generation its own unique flavour. According to Forbes, some of the characteristics of the millennial generation, for example, include valuing experiences as much as or more than money and having a willingness to question authority – quite different from their parents’ generation.
The food you eat affects you in all sorts of ways. Eating healthy promotes healthy organ function, including that of your brain. Eating poorly can lead to deficiencies, which will affect your body and mind, or obesity, which will likewise affect your body and mind, or any number of other ailments that arise through diet.
18 Birth Order
This one is actually more complex than it seems. The idea that children exhibit behaviour that corresponds to the order of their birth relative to their siblings is a very old one, but some have also suggested that the way a child perceives themselves in the hierarchy of siblings is just as important. Essentially, if you have an older sibling who “acts like a younger sibling,” and you “act like an older sibling,” you might have the reverse personalities of what is typical. Older siblings tend to like rules and order, and younger siblings to be carefree.
17 Your Genetics
Genetics play a huge role in determining who you are. For a long time, psychologists believed every person was born a blank slate, and that personality was entirely learned. Twin studies, though, have offered pretty solid evidence to the contrary. Twins, separated as infants and raised in different families, exhibit remarkably similar behaviour.
16 Your Experiences
Of course, your genes and the way they are expressed only go so far. Pile on top of that the sum of all the experiences you’ve gone through and you begin to get a more complete picture of a human person. Think of it less as nature vs. nurture, and more like nature informing nurture.
15 Sex & Gender
Women have several different problems than men do, men have several different problems than women do, and those with non-traditional gender identities have a whole host of other problems unique to themselves. Some of these are biological, others are social, but they’re all factors in determining who you are.
“Environment” is a broad term, encapsulating everything from geography to society to home life. Two Christians born in very different societies might share some values in common, just as two Americans with different religions might, or two island-dwelling people with different nationalities and religions. Ultimately, the more environmental commonalities, the more likely two people will share certain values.
13 Family Life
The way a family interacts is important for a whole host of reasons. The way you learn to behave at home is often how you behave elsewhere. The way you are treated, and see others treated, influences your priorities when interacting with others, as well as how you expect interactions with others to proceed.
12 Parenting Style
Similar to family dynamic, the specific manner in which you are parented is important, and there are all kinds of theories out there about what works and what doesn’t. Most parents try to strike a balance between allowing freedom and trying to keep kids on the straight and narrow, and the precise mix (or lack thereof) is an important piece of who that child turns out to be.
There is a correlation between education and political leanings. Generally, better educated people tend to be progressive, while less educated people tend to conservatism. This is one of those times where it’s hard to say which causes the other – maybe progressive people just value education more – but it seems likely that broadening one’s horizons would have some effect on the way a person thinks.
Money can buy happiness. Specifically, the more money you earn, the happier you tend to be – up to the saturation point, which has been identified as an income of about $75,000 a year. That’s the point where happiness as a consequence of earning money plateaus. On the other hand, debt or low income living can be a huge source of stress.
9 Level Of Physical Activity
Exercise changes a person’s hormone levels and organ function. Done properly, getting exercise is a great, natural way to improve your mood. There are also studies that have shown that maintaining a healthy level of exercise is linked with improved brain function later in life, including helping prevent dementia.
Everyone knows at least one person who really, really needs their morning coffee. That’s a fairly tame example of addiction flexing its muscle, but really, it’s not much different from other addictions. At a certain point with certain substances, the body can develop an emotional or physical need. Abstaining can alter mood and personality drastically, and addiction, unfortunately, appears to last forever, so sufferers are never fully free of that craving.
7 Reading Habits
Some research has suggested that reading changes the brain on a physical level, bridging areas that otherwise would not connect. Beyond that, there is some evidence to suggest people who read fiction are more empathetic. Perhaps seeing things from a different perspective in a book makes it easier to do in real life.
We touched on stress briefly earlier, but it’s worthy of its own entry. Stress, in the way that we normally think of it, is a reaction we have to stimuli that scare or worry us. Typically, we deal with this either by trying to confront the thing or to flee it. Trouble is, modern life doesn’t always allow one of those as an option, and so stress can have a lasting and damaging effect on health and the mind.
5 The Way You Think/Meditation
It’s possible to try and alter the way you think, and doing so successfully can be beneficial. Practicing meditation can help calm you by letting you learn to escape the distracting and damaging thoughts that float around the human mind. As with reading, there’s evidence to suggest meditation can change the physical connections in the brain.
This one is another fairly broad category. Younger people have developing brains and, for a while, hormone levels that are totally out of whack. Middle age brings yet more hormone changes, and old age more again, and the way these changes manifest in the body affect personality. Beyond that, there’s no doubt that slowing down and approaching death will alter behaviour and thinking.
3 The Weather
This one might seem silly, but it’s still true. The weather outside affects our mood, and some of us more than others. The “winter blues,” also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, are very real, and are likely related to the fact that sunshine boosts serotonin (an antidepressant) levels in the brain.
2 Your Posture/Expression
When we’re happy, we smile. When we’re confident, we stand tall. But it’s also true that when we smile, we’re happy, and when we stand tall, we’re confident. It turns out it’s possible to “fake it till you make it” by purposefully changing your stance and expression to affect mood, so your parents have been right all along – stand up straight.
1 Your Sleeping Habits
Sleep changes everything. A lack of it affects our hormones negatively, changes our appetites, and even makes us less intelligent. The best way to get rest is to wake up and go to bed at more or less the same time every day. Had a late night and need more sleep? Fight through it and get up at the same time, then take a nap later in the day. It keeps you on schedule while still getting you the shuteye you crave.