Taking Control of Our Destiny

The awareness that health is dependent upon habits that we control makes us the first generation in history that to a large extent determines its own destiny.” This was written by Jimmy Carter in his 1987 book, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.

George Vaillant MD in his book, Aging Well, examines the lives of over 800 adults from early adulthood to old age. He looked at those who were doing well later in life, who he calls the “”Happy-Well,” and compared them to those who were having more problems later in life- the “Sad-Sick.” He found that avoiding cigarette smoking and getting regular exercise were the best predictors of good physical health later in life. The best predictor of good mental health later in life was not drinking alcohol in excess. If we add to this the health effects of obesity, we have a recipe for a healthier and happier life. All we have to do is avoid cigarettes, not drink in excess, exercise, watch what we eat, and we will greatly increase our chances of being one of the “the Happy-Well.”

Sounds simple, but then why is it so hard to do? The main reason is that we tend to justify our decisions, even our bad decisions. Psychology explains this tendency using the idea of Cognitive Dissonance. The classic example of this is the old Aesop fable The Fox and the Grapes. In this story the fox sees some grapes hanging from a vine, but no matter how much he jumps he can't reach them. He gives up and tells himself that the grapes were probably sour. By telling himself this he justifies his decision not to continue trying to get the grapes. We do the same thing when faced with having to make a difficult choice, like quitting cigarettes, getting into an exercise routine or eating a healthier diet. We might make an effort to do one of these things but then encounter the reality that changing our habits is hard! Like the fox, we might then give up, and then look for reasons to justify giving up.

What are our “sour grapes?”

The following are some of the ways of thinking we use that get in the way of our making better choices:
  • Denial: We tell ourselves that there is no problem. We avoid looking at the evidence that we need to make some changes. Mad magazine's Alfred E. Newman famous saying, “What me worry?” captures this approach.
  • Minimization: We see we might have a problem, but tell ourselves that the problem is “no big deal.”
  • Rationalization: We give ourselves excuses not to change, “Everyone is going to die anyway,” or “I am too busy to make the effort to change now.”
  • Externalization: We deny personal responsibility, we see ourselves as victims of external forces. “The advertising industry keeps pushing these bad foods on us,” or “I would be out of place if I didn't have a drink.”
  • Internalization: We tell ourselves that we can't make a change, “I don't have any will power.”
All of these lead to the same result- we continue to put our futures at risk by not changing harmful habits.

How we can regain control

To make positive changes in our lives that can have long lasting effects on our health and happiness we need to recognize and combat the rationalizations and excuses we give ourselves to avoid doing what we know is right.

  • Denial: We need to allow ourselves to look at the facts, look at the potential risks of maintaining unhealthy behaviors. There a many feelings that support denial, such as the worry that if we face a problem we will have to face the shame of having that problem or the fear we will not be able to do anything about it. It may be helpful to recognize that change takes time and the first step is learning about the problem, and not put pressure on ourselves to change immediately.
  • Minimizing: Similar to denial we need to open ourselves up to information, to learn about both the risks of having unhealthier habits, and also the benefits of changing those habits.
  • Rationalization: We need to develop arguments to counter these rationalizations. For example, “Yes it is true we are all going to die of something, but why speed the process up or make the last years of our lives less enjoyable?” Or, “Yes there is a lot going on in our lives and it is hard to find the time to do something new, but don't we usually find time for the things that are really important to us, maybe we need to look at our priorities.” If we are having trouble coming up with counter arguments we think about what we would say to a friend who presented the same rational we are using, or ask other people how they would respond to our rationalizations.
  • Externalization: There are many powerful influences on our behavior, both on a large scale and in our immediate lives, but in the end it is our life and we need to take responsibility for it.
  • Internalization: Just because we don't have the will power now doesn't mean we cannot develop it. There are a number of things that we can do to improve our will power, for example: building our commitment to change by looking at the benefits, having a good plan for how we are going to make positive changes, increasing social support, and many others that I will be looking at in future blogs.
We do not have to be slaves to our bad habits. By recognizing and challenging the thinking that holds us back from making positive changes in our lives, we can as Jimmy Carter said, take control of our destiny!

Until next time,

Pleasure the Spice and Bane of Life, and What Goldilocks Teaches Us

Pleasure, the Spice of Life
When we think of happiness we often associate it with pleasure. Pleasure is the spice of life.  We are all drawn to pleasurable activities. One way of defining something as pleasurable is that you would want more of it. Pleasures comes in may different forms. There are the raw sensual pleasures associated to taste, touch, or smell. We all enjoy tasty foods; we are turned on by gentle physical touch or sexual stimulation; we are drawn to the smell of a flower or freshly baked bread. Other pleasures are less physical, like the enjoyment of a beautiful sunset, hearing great music, or remembering a special moment with a loved one. Life without pleasure would be dull.

The problem with pleasure is that it is fleeting. Human beings are designed to adapt to their environment. If we live in a big city we learn to tune out the many background noises.  If we are traveling the same road all the time we stop paying close attention to the scenery and go on automatic pilot. Adapting is a good thing in many ways, as it allows us to free up attention to focus on other things. However, it also creates problems for us when it comes to pleasure because we adapt to that too. The tenth spoonful of ice cream is not going to be as sweet as the first one was. Buying the new car, the new flat screened TV, and the big house are nice- for awhile. But then we start taking them for granted and need to get something else to have the same experience again. This leads to something called the hedonic treadmill: having to do more of something to continue to get pleasure.

The Dark Side of Pleasure
The dark side of pleasure is addiction. Because we tend to adapt to pleasures, to continue getting pleasure from an activity we need more and more of it, or more intense versions. People who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, overeating, shopping, etc, all started out getting pleasure from their activities. Over time, to counter the effects of adaptation, they had to do more and more to get the same level of pleasure. David J. Linden in his book, The Compass of Pleasure, describes that with addictions things get to the point where the person's capacity to experience pleasure gets worn out, they are less capable of experiencing simple pleasures, and need increasing amounts of whatever they are addicted to to feel any pleasure at all. This leads to needing to do more and more but getting less and less from it. Eventually the addicted person needs their addiction just to feel normal, and this only lasts as long as they are using.

I believe that few of us would want to experience only pleasure all the time. Many of the things we value require postponing immediate pleasure to achieve a later reward. If we only sought pleasure our lives would eventually become devoid off all activities we normally see as meaningful. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are two novels that explore a world focused on pleasure and I believe few of us would want to end up in the societies these stories describe. A life of only pleasure would probably be pretty dull too.

What Would Goldilocks Do?
In the classic fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks ventures out and come upon the home of the three bears. She goes inside and sees three bowls of porridge on the table. She tries each one and discovers that one is too hot, another is too cold, but the third is just right, and she enjoys that one. She goes on and practices the same approach to deciding on a chair to sit in and a bed to sleep in. What does this teach us? First of all, venture out! Do different things. Having variety in our lives counters the tendency to adapt to our pleasures. Second, we need to pay attention, notice what we are doing. Goldilocks was mindful of what she did, she took the time to taste the different bowls of porridge. We need to slow down and pay attention. Our lives are filled with potentially pleasurable experiences if we just stop to notice them. Lastly we need to seek some moderation in our pleasures. We don't want to eliminate pleasure but we also don't want to over-do it either. We need to look for what is “just right” for us.

Future Directions
Martin Seligman Ph.D., one of the leading researchers and champions of Positive Psychology, in his book Authentic Happiness talks about how we can expand what he calls the Pleasant Life. He suggests that we can learn how to take the sting out of the past through forgiveness, increase our enjoyment of the present through mindfulness and gratitude, and improve our perspective of the future through cultivating optimism. So stay tuned, I will be covering these approaches and much more in future blogs.

So enjoy, until next time,