It’s a fascinating conundrum; the apparent inability of many people to take the best care of their health and wellbeing despite the overwhelming evidence that supports the benefits of healthy living. If you know that eating well, exercising regularly, reducing stress, and avoiding smoking, excessive drinking and narcotics will all help you live a longer, healthier life, why is it so hard to change your bad lifestyle habits for good ones?
There’s been a great deal of research done into this question, and it seems that human psychology is the chief culprit. However, research has also shown that it is possible to alter your habits and that the key is to understand how to implement lasting change in your daily life.
Human psychology and its role in habit forming
The way our brains work regarding how we respond to reward mechanisms and crave instant gratification, often over-rides the knowledge that we should change our bad habits. Our primitive ancestral instincts to eat as often as possible and choose high-calorie foods, plus the desire to take what we can whenever we can, are behavioral imperatives that remain from a time in human history when food was scarce and life expectancy far shorter than it is now.
The other major problem is the addiction, both physiological and psychological, that makes it hard to quit our bad habits. You probably thinking of smoking and drug taking as the main addictions in modern life, and it’s true they are a major cause of addictive behavior. However, anything that becomes a way of reassuring or comforting yourself can become a psychologically addictive habit.
Reward and comfort
The concept of comfort eating is well established, and most of us have felt the urge to grab a high calorie treat like a tub of ice-cream or a bar of chocolate when we feel low. The taste and texture of foods such as these are intensely pleasurable, and high sugar treats may also give you a boost as the glucose hits your body. The act of eating something you like makes you feel better while you’re eating it, and it’s only afterward that you start to worry about the extra pounds you’ve added to your weight or the damage to your heart and vascular system from all the fat and sugar.
In certain ways, adults retain childlike impulses such as the desire to have what they want immediately rather than waiting. Studies have shown that most children will opt for a reward now rather than wait for a larger reward in the future.
So, if you offer a child one bar of chocolate now, or two bars if they wait a week, they will almost always choose to have their chocolate now even though they would get more if they were patient. You may expect that the proportion of adults who respond in the same way would be far lower, but in fact, the majority will also choose the instant reward rather than the promise of something better in the future.
The pursuit of happiness
For the majority of people, the most important aspect of their life is the need to feel happy. Of course, what makes any one person happy is an entirely personal feeling. Some people might say the most important thing in their life is money, family, career, religion, a hobby and so on.
However, what they mean is that these elements of living are what they believe makes them happy. Therefore, it makes sense that people seek out pleasurable experiences that they believe will bring them happiness, even if they are putting themselves at risk in some way. How many Internet memes have you read along the lines of “life is for living” or “he who dares, wins”? The pursuit of happiness is the driving force behind most human existence, and we all have different ways of achieving the happiness we desire.
The difference between pleasure and happiness
Happiness is the ultimate goal, the feeling of having joy in your heart and a spring in your step. Unfortunately, many people confuse pleasure with happiness and believe that pursuing pleasure will bring them happiness. Pleasure is all well and good, but it’s fleeting.
That draw on a cigarette, the feel of chocolate melting in your mouth, and all the other pleasurable activities you experience in life are very enjoyable, but they won’t bring you lasting happiness. Fulfillment, purpose, achievement; these are what makes a happy life, so your first step to changing your bad habits is to understand the difference between pleasure and happiness.
One common mistake many people make when trying to change is to try and do too much too soon. For instance, trying to run a mile on your first day of exercise, or quitting smoking cold turkey. Some folks succeed with these drastic measures, but most people do better taking a more gradual approach. Starting with some stretching exercises and a short walk on day one of your exercise program and building up to running a mile is far more likely to be successful.
Similarly, using nicotine replacement therapy, or replacing cigarettes with a vape might make it easier to wean yourself away from tobacco. You can click here for more information on vaping. Alternatively, visit this website for more on starting a running program from scratch. Research has shown there is no definitive length of time required to form new habits, and in studies, it took anywhere between two and eight months for new habits to become ingrained. It’s also been shown that the odd lapse over the period of change does not affect the outcome, so there’s no need to give up if you have a binge on day seven of your diet for example.
With all these barriers standing in the way, it’s no wonder that change can be hard to achieve. Taking the time to understand why you feel the way you do will give you an insight into why you have picked up some bad habits, and this knowledge will give you power over the instincts and beliefs controlling your behavior.