Pain vs. Pleasure
Human behaviour is driven by how we perceive pain or pleasure. We develop neurological associations within our nervous system that link certain activities and experiences to pain or pleasure. Simply put, we want to avoid pain and engage in the things that we find most pleasurable. Oddly enough, many of us will exert more energy and resources in avoiding pain, than in gaining pleasure.
Imagine that you work in an office building and during your lunch break you spend time walking outdoors in a park.
On your walk, you hear someone playing beautiful music, which you love. You stop to enjoy the performance, but quickly check your watch and see your lunch break will end soon. Instead of enjoying a few more minutes of music, you head back to work. In this case, the pain of being late for work outweighed the pleasure of staying and listening to music you love.
You have an assignment due for work or school, but you are procrastinating by spending time with friends or surfing the web. This is because the thought of doing the assignment is painful, so you spend time doing things that are pleasurable instead.
Hold on … then why are you able to complete that assignment at the last minute? Well, that’s because the thought of not handing the assignment in on time is what’s most painful for you now. Remember, most of us want to avoid pain at all costs.
There was an interesting study done on delayed gratification. It was designed to study a child’s ability to delay gratification for a bigger reward later. Children were taken into a room and told that they could eat one marshmallow now or if they waited until the facilitator returned they would receive two marshmallows.
Now, some of the children ate the one marshmallow right away but an interesting thing happened with the children who delayed their gratification. These children had developed willpower coping skills: they found things to distract themselves, colouring, telling themselves a story, playing with a toy etc. A follow-up study also showed that the children who could delay gratification where more focused and did better in school, where better adjusted socially and rated higher on happiness scales.
It has also been shown that children who are involved in sports, music, dance etc. develop skills that allow them to focus until a job is completed. This skill is crucial in developing your willpower.
Willpower is Like a Muscle
Another study determined that Willpower is like a muscle; it needs exercising to get strong, and it can get fatigued. The more you practice willpower, starting with small tasks, the stronger your willpower will become. However, you must be careful not to fatigue your willpower.
Have you ever noticed that after a long day of focusing on work or school, it is nearly impossible to resist temptation or get your butt to the gym? This happens because you have been exercising your willpower all day in order to focus on your daily tasks. To get around this, start building healthy habits. I have found if I go to the gym immediately after work it helps me to unwind and I do not have to exert willpower to leave my warm cozy home again after I arrived home. Alternatively, hit the gym first thing in the morning when your willpower is still strong. Healthy morning routines help to set the tone for the day.
Willpower’s Relationship to Habit
Willpower is what we require to start a new habit. We only need to use our willpower for a certain task until that task becomes habit. That is great news! We can all do something for 21 days. That is easy!
We don’t need to exert willpower to brush our teeth, wash our face or take a shower anymore. These are all healthy habits now.
When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, people don’t give up because they lack willpower or motivation, they give up because the perceived short term pain of exercising and eating well is greater than the long term pleasure of having a healthy body.
Time and time again, I’ve dealt with frustrated clients who knew intellectually that eating junk food was bad, but they would do it anyway. This happens because they have a neurological association, and in some cases physiological addictions i.e. sugar, that links eating junk food to pleasure. In this case, they always eat the junk food to avoid the pain of not eating it.
Humans are hard-wired to search out high calorie sources of fast burning fuel. Sugar is a highest calorie source that tastes fantastic. Historically our ancestors might enjoy fruit and berries seasonally. They might come across a wild hive of bees once or twice a year, and harvest some honey at great risk to the harvester. It is only the last 100 years that sugar has become a major source of calories. We are sick because of it.
Sugar is addicting for several reasons. Sugar hooks into the opioid receptors in our brain. Yes the same ones that cocaine and CRACK hook into. We get a similar physiological reward for eating sugar. No wonder it is addicting.
The good news is that it takes about three or four days for the average person to get over a physiological addiction to sugar. Go cold turkey! Treat yourself with self-soothing techniques like warm baths, long walks etc. while you are kicking the sugar habit.
We also get addicted to the release of feel good hormones such as serotonin that are released when we eat sugar. Using self-soothing techniques helps release serotonin in response, so you feel good without consuming sugar. You can do it!
Rewire Your Brain
The great news is we can change our neuro-associations within our nervous system, which will eliminate behaviours we are not happy with. Tony Robbins, entrepreneur, best-selling author and philanthropist, states “we can learn to condition our minds, bodies and emotions to link pain and pleasure to whatever we choose. By changing what we link pain and pleasure to, we instantly change our behaviours.”
If living a healthy lifestyle is something you struggle with, you must start linking the perception of pain to old behaviour and link the perception of pleasure to new behaviour. Basically, you are rewiring your brain. Here are some practices you can incorporate into your life to start changing neuro-associations within your nervous system through mindfulness.
- Journal. You want to create a pleasurable neuro association with a healthy lifestyle, but you also want to create a painful neuro association to NOT living a healthy lifestyle. Write down all the ways being healthy will benefit you, but also write down all the ways not being healthy will hurt you. Do NOT use this to self-harm. Approach this exercise from Self-Love. Practice this daily.
- Food Journal. Keep a journal specific to the foods you eat and the liquids you drink. Record everything that passes your lips. A 2008 study showed that people who keep food journals shed twice as much as those who do not. They are also much more likely to keep the lost weight off.
- Create a Goal, Write it down. Use SMART Goals to give yourself a structure to follow. This makes it a lot easier to achieve your goals. Using the divide and conquer technique breaks down the steps into manageable bite-sized steps that you can then achieve.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
“A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action makes your dream come true”.
- Visualize that you have achieved your goals. Our brains do not differentiate between fantasy and reality. Olympic athletes take advantage of this. They have been using visualization for decades. Interestingly, muscles will trigger the same during visualization as they do during the activity.
- Keep visual reminders around you. Again, you want to create a pleasurable neuro association with a healthy lifestyle, but you also want to create a painful neuro association to NOT living a healthy lifestyle. Visual reminders are one of the reasons why unpleasant photos on cigarette packages have been so successful helping people quit smoking. The visual reminder makes them associate pain to smoking. Vision boards keep us focused on our goals.
- Surround yourself with people who motivate and inspire you. If you spend time with negative people, you are going to hear a lot of negative stuff. You may not think this affects you, but we can unconsciously take on the emotions of people around us. You want to surround yourself with positivity, rather than negativity.
Studies show that:
- You will maintain a weight which is the average of your five closest friends.
- Your income will be the average of your five closest friends.
Choose your tribe wisely.
Keeping it RAW ‘N Green
Judy N Green
(c) 2017 RAW ‘N Green Wellness Coaching