If you have ever made resolutions to tweak your lifestyle, you probably found that, a few weeks (or maybe days) later, you were right back where you started. Feeling inspired has the potential to change your life, but the doing part is often where it gets tricky. I want to talk about the psychology behind that and share some insights on how you can push yourself through.
Jonathan Haidt is a leading positive psychology researcher/professor at the University of Virginia and the author of The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s a really good look at the “Great Ideas” from ancient wisdom that he brilliantly analyzes in the light of modern science. In doing so, he extracts their practical applications for daily life.
The fact that it contains so many lifestyle positive psychology insights means I will come back to it the future.
So we’re talking about why lifestyle adjustments can be difficult to make, let’s look at some basic ideas of psychology:
Freud thought the mind was divided into 3 parts:
- The ego (the conscious, rational self)
- The superego (the conscience, a sometimes too rigid commitment to the rules of society)
- The id (the desire for pleasure, lots of it, sooner rather than later).
“The metaphor I use when I lecture on Freud is to think of the mind as a horse and buggy (a Victorian chariot). The driver (the ego) struggles frantically to control a hungry, lustful, and disobedient horse (the id) while the driver’s father (the superego) sits in the back seat lecturing the driver on what he’s doing wrong. For Freud, the goal of psychoanalysis was to strengthen the ego, thus giving it more control over the id and more independence from the superego.” -Jonathan Haidth, The Happiness Hypothesis
In the first chapter of the book, Haidth follows this model for his description of the human mind. He talks about the “Divided Self” and presents his model of “the rider and the elephant”. It compares our rational/conscious minds with the more animalistic instincts that tend to dictate our lifestyle.
Now, this model describes what you and I would recognize as the perpetual war between the part of you that knows cookies aren’t healthy right before bed, and the part of you that frankly does not care.
Instincts are more powerful than rationality.
The elephant is in charge, so willpower alone certainly won’t be enough to make any sort of lasting lifestyle change. The rider doesn’t have total control over the elephant, especially if the 6000 pound animal has other plans in mind.
What works well is training your instincts.
Now, animal trainers will tell you that effective conditioning has two components:
1 . Repetition
This has to do with showing up every single day, being reliable in your pursuit and not giving up. Now, obviously, 100% of people who succeed in implementing new habits into their lives did not give up on them.
But the point here was to look at why sticking to the plan is so hard, and now with the elephant/rider analogy it’s a little clearer. There’s a part of you that doesn’t really want to do what your rational mind suggests, and it just so happens that this primitive actor is much more powerful than the rational one.
2 . Timely rewards
This is also another interesting part in The Happiness Hypothesis where Jonathan Haidth describes how the instinctual brain responds to rewards, but only if they come directly after a desired action.
And this makes sense, since this “instinctual” brain is the one we share with all kinds of animals. Anybody who’s trained a pet knows that it’s important to reward them for a desirable behavior right when they do it.
Giving your dog a pat on the head 10 minutes after he brought back the ball does not guarantee that he’ll associate the praise to the act of bringing back the ball.
Same thing goes for our instinctual brain, it’s about making associations, and for that to happen it’s best if the feedback is immediate.
So sticking to the plan and rewarding yourself for every milestone achieved. The strategy for change is simple in design but of course hard to execute, and those who can muster the willpower to plough through in those first few days when the elephant is fighting back can reap the rewards.
Coaching can ease the process.
Arguably, the best way to get in shape is to actually hire a personal trainer. This professional will help you define clear fitness goals and support you in the execution. And of course hold you accountable for following-through.
As we’ve discussed earlier, this is where things get tricky for most people.
Those who have coaches make lifestyle changes more easily.
In recent years I’ve had to adapt my personal life to a host of changes in environment and situation, and having to move on from the past. I think this platform and what I do on it is a reflection of this journey of change.
Writting was essentially my way forward from the inner turmoil, the uncertainty and the fear. I wrote a journal (still do), then started blogging, and for me those challenges had meaning. So I decided to turn all this writting into something people could benefit from. I stopped writting for emotional relief (once I was ready), and started writting with the intent to actually inspire people. Inspiriung people to build themselves up and not worry so much about outside judgement.
Then I took up coaching (through Erickson International), with the intent to actually support people at a one-on-one level, in finding their way forward from personal changes.
In the meantime though, I hope this has been useful to you. There will be more next week so definitely subscribe to my newsletter if you took something away from this.
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And if you liked this article, you will love Jonathan Haidth’s book too, check it out. 🙂