A little ways back, I was at a gathering of friends and family and was in the kitchen setting out a dish of black bean and quinoa dip. Suddenly, I heard someone from behind me exclaim: “What is that? If that’s something healthy, I am not eating it.”
Although somewhat intended as a joke, there was no doubt a truthfulness to what was said, just as exists in similar comments which often sound like this: “My doctor said I have to start eating healthy because my numbers (i.e., cholesterol, blood pressure) are bad.” Even in the doctor’s lounge, where physicians have spent much of their life being educated about the effects of a healthy diet, the comments about healthy eating sound a lot like little kids being told they have to go to bed early.
But it just doesn’t have to do with what we eat. The Wall Street Journal recently published a sobering look at the negative effects that smartphones can have on our intellect. It is an increasingly long line of bad news about devices and usage patterns when it comes to our health and well-being. Many people will tell you that while they love the convenience and experience, the smartphone attached to their body isn’t exactly improving their physical and psychological health.
If we are being honest, these are only two of a number of examples in which people often (consciously or unconsciously) choose immediate gratification, convenience, and experience over what is good for their short and long-term health. We, as a society, might act as though clarity of mind and soundness of body are of utmost importance, but our practices and habits repeatedly echo otherwise. So just why do we reject our health and well-being for other prizes?
Well, like most questions that involve human behavior, it can be complicated. For starters, we should note that people have different standards and values when it comes to the definition of “health” and “well-being.” Depending on how you were raised and what your current models are, one person’s definition of health might look like another person’s lack of fitness. Limited information about good health practices can also be a barrier, although less so today with all that is available.
But beyond differing standards and limited information, there are a few core reasons why people’s habits directly contradict what they know is good for them. First, a healthy lifestyle requires a certain level of discipline, which includes both strenuous actions and regular abstaining, that is frankly not appealing to some people. Part of the reason it is not appealing is that they perceive that it only adds to the stress and hardships of their days (even if evidence suggests that in the long-term, it might do the opposite). If you have had a long day of work and feel mentally and physically exhausted, going out for a jog and skipping dessert might seem like the last thing you want to do.
This connects to the second barrier. Although being healthy can feel good, it seldom rivals the hedonistic experience of a great bowl of ice cream or a sensational or goofy internet feed. Good health practices are rarely like roller coasters or repeated Facebook messages; what they involve is a collective focus that gradually develops within the person to satisfy urges and yearnings, but not necessarily because it evokes a complete thrill or an absolute sense of relief. When I eat my head-sized salad at dinner or my bowl of Grape Nuts before I go to bed, it satisfies a craving (in addition to many FDA requirements) and my desire for calories. But it will never be like pizza and ice cream, even though I have no desire (correction, yearning) to go this habitual route.
For if we go deeper, one of the true reasons that we reject our own health and well-being is that we don’t trust that the process will actually lead us to a happier, more satisfying place. I once had a coworker who swore by starting every day with a Coke (and probably ending with one, too). She knew that no matter how stressful the day was, she could count on the Coke to provide her with a concentrated, reliable source of goodness. McDonald’s knows this, which is why their cups and containers often speak of joy and pleasure and peace. The problem with her Coke (and other similar foods, though) was that it was partly the culprit of her high level of anxiety and poorer health. And being in health care, she knew it.
Yet all the knowledge didn’t make a difference because taking away the one sure fire way to feel good felt really uncomfortable. Not only did the stressors loom large, but the idea that clearer thinking, greater peace of mind, and a healthier body might actually lead to greater happiness and contentment seemed somewhat like a pipe dream. And so it does for most people, especially if you have really never known someone who experienced it in this way. Mysterious changes geared toward health that take time seem like quite a risky proposition when we just want to feel good now. Like anything worth having, there is a leap of faith involved, and our health is no exception. Opportunities abound to both feel good and be healthy, but we must first consider what is really important in our lives. Otherwise, we will continue to reject our health and well-being for other prizes, and the quinoa won’t be the only thing leftover.
Jim Schroeder is a pediatric psychologist.
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