It seems that everyone is on a quest for personal, physical, and mental improvement. We yearn to change our habits and may flit between detox cleanses, personal development courses and health retreats in an effort to transform our lives.
Unfortunately, for many of us, our brains are getting in the way of our best behavioural efforts, no matter how earnest. We then wonder why we struggle to sustain our new and improved lifestyles, and fall back into old habits, feeling worse than before. Simply, our brains are making us sick. While we like to believe that we’re purely rational beings who make measured decisions based on careful analysis of all available information, most of the time, we are at the mercy of our ingrained habits, preconceived ideas, and our brain’s overwhelming instinct for self-preservation.
We operate on auto-pilot, making decisions based on everything except logic.
The good news is that simple awareness of what’s happening inside our heads, and how our brains are sabotaging our health, can be enough to release their stranglehold on our behaviour.
1. THE BRAIN IS LAZY
Thinking requires lots of energy. In fact, our brain accounts for up to a quarter of our energy needs, even though it’s only a fraction of our total body weight. The brain conserves energy by taking shortcuts known as ‘heuristics’, which underlie every snap judgement or decision. Heuristics are why a single unpleasant yoga class can sour our impression of yoga forever and why we may think ‘healthy food is boring’ or ‘we can’t be soulmates, he’s an accountant’.
Although they allow us to make quick decisions about our rapidly changing world, in many situations heuristics can be detrimental to our long-term health and happiness.
To break the pattern, it’s important to question whether our thoughts are actually true, or whether they’re shortcuts. Questioning ourselves opens our mind to new information, which can radically shift our perspective. Perhaps it’s realising that healthy food isn’t just a bucket of raw kale, or that not all accountants are boring.
2. WE HATE CHANGE
In our information-saturated world, most of us have all the facts in the world on how to change. The problem is, many of us either don’t change, or we self-sabotage.
The reason is that our brain does not like change. The status quo gives us safety and predictability. Anything different is a foray into the scary unknown. We may know that it’s important to cut down on our alcohol consumption, but what then? What happens at a friend’s wedding next month? We won’t be able to go to the races. Our minds fill with worst-case scenarios, no matter how improbable they are, and suddenly, changing even unhelpful habits seems to hold more risk than benefit. We find ourselves justifying maintaining the status quo.
Breaking this habit requires some introspection into the cold reality of continuing our unhealthy habits. If we keep drinking the way we are, what will we look like in a year, five years, 20? What will our liver look like? If our mind is going to play the ‘worst case scenario’ game at the prospect of changing, we can counter that with the worst-case scenario of NOT changing.
3. WE DON’T LIKE TO BE DIFFERENT
We have an innate desire to fit in, which is a yet another survival mechanism that served us well in pre-modern times when cooperating with others and being part of the crowd was literally a matter of life or death.
It takes a lot of mental effort, to be different (see point one). It means others question our actions, motives, and even our sanity.Being different requires a greater level of self-confidence and self-belief, because we no longer experience safety in numbers.
Unfortunately, the crowd can reinforce unhelpful habits – think hanging out with colleagues who insist on fish and chips every lunchtime or choosing to join the girls at the pub despite knowing your penchant for smoking with wine, rather than missing out. When the crowd is working against our best interests, we can follow the crowd or change our crowd. The latter can serve as a sort of key to unlock habits that seem resistant to change as the people around us influence our choices, for better or worse.