Why Our Willpower Sucks

Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

When it comes to non-habitual behaviours, most of us are terrible at sticking to our guns. Science has revealed routines that are proven to make us happier (exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, etc.), and yet we repeatedly fail to put these into practice, despite fully comprehending the long-term benefits. Why do we screw up so much?

There’s a few reasons, and most of them aren’t our fault.

As with every other living thing on Earth, we’re the products of evolution. Over the course of 4 billion years, our two main concerns were surviving, and procreating. These have been of vital importance for billions of years, and our brains have evolved to respond fiercely to them. Nowadays, when we see a pretty girl with a muffin, it’s a wonder we don’t trample her to death.

The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that regulates behaviour, developing during the later stages of our evolution. Our brains are less a single, coherent unit, and more a collection of tacked on improvements, which explains why we often feel so conflicted. The ancient, primal parts of our brains want to eat and fuck everything in sight, and the modern parts attempt to remind us that those things aren’t always our best options. We have two minds, pitted against each other in battle, with psychological distress as the consequence. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a fitting metaphor for this, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:

“The image I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” 

Jonathan Haidt

The elephant is very much in control. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves after failing to resist a glistening cream-filled doughnut.

In addition to battling against a burly, be-trunked mammal, we’re also up against the brain’s tendency to form habits. Repeating an action and having it ingrained into your mind as a habit is a wonderfully useful technique, until it happens for an undesirable action, such as consuming a fistful of Lindt balls. Every time our willpower fails and we do something harmful to our long-term health, that destructive habit becomes a little stronger. This is probably the biggest cause of failure for us. Even when we do have a moment of strength and hold fast against our habituated primal desires, we’re using a precious reserve of willpower which depletes over the course of the day. The cookie that we defy in the morning takes on an especially delicious glow by afternoon.

The internet and social media are also to blame. We live in an age of instant gratification — social media apps are designed to hack our reward system, turning us into twitching addicts who crave our quick-fix daily memes. We want a million delightful things at once, and we don’t want to put any effort into them. As a result, resisting what’s harmful is becoming much more difficult.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we just need to learn how to build better habits. This is one of the most important skills you can develop; Leo Babauta offers immensely helpful advice on in his blog Zen Habits. He suggests starting extremely small, and working your way up. You won’t develop a running habit if you tell yourself you’re going to run 10km every day. Neither will you be able to completely stop eating sugary treats. This is setting yourself up to fail. You need to give yourself a lot of leeway to begin with, and make slow, incremental improvements. Remember that the elephant is in control most of the time.

Another suggestion is to only focus on a single habit at a time. Figure out what it is that bothers you the most — the one thing that you’d love to start doing — and put all of your effort into that sole habit. You won’t be able to change ten things at a time; you’ll flounder and then feel terrible afterwards because you’ve failed again. Once your new habit is embedded, move onto the next. This is a process that might take years—prepare yourself for a lot of hard work. Realise that you’ll still mess up from time to time, and all that is required is to pick up where you left off.

Lastly, celebrating your success is key. Instead of focusing on what you’ve failed at, look to what you’ve achieved. Illuminate your accomplishments; remind yourself that you’re triumphing over something that you’ve flopped at for years. This will give you the motivation you need to continue.

By slowly building good habits, we can all gain a little more mastery over our elephants.

The Evolutionary Phenomenon That Makes Sport so Thrilling

“Zoom in, and then tell me ‘it’s just a game’”

@CAFC_SF88

The above picture is the moment that Charlton Athletic—a English football team based in South-East London—scored the last-minute winning goal that would promote them to the higher Championship division, the culmination of a season’s efforts to climb the ranks of the country’s football leagues.

Observe the faces of each and every supporter in the photo, and you can understand the immense impact that sports can have on people’s lives—the sheer, unalloyed joy that comes bursting forth as their team secures a victory that will enhance their position. There’s nothing contrived about this photo, just a plethora of faces—fresh-faced, wrinkled, spectacled, moustached, male, and female—brought together by a team whose actions have rocketed them into the heights of a collective ecstasy. Non-sports fans might be surprised by the emotional intensity—how can something so seemingly trivial as sport create such unbridled fervor? Isn’t it just a game?

Tribalism is the phenomenon responsible for a sport fan’s extraordinary emotional reactions—the flawless rapture that they feel as their team smashes the clincher into the back of the net. In our evolutionary past, tribalism improved our chances of survival by consolidating us into groups, who we trusted, favoured, and depended on. Our tribe became an extension of ourselves, every loss and victory. When a fellow tribesman returned from a successful hunt with a delicious deer tied to the back of his horse, his achievement was our achievement, and was celebrated as such. Similarly, when Charlton’s Patrick Bauer poked the ball past the goal line in the last minute of the play-off final, even though he was the only person responsible for the act, every single Charlton fan in the stadium claimed the victory as their own, with a roar that echoed throughout the country. When we support a football team, we’re no longer a lonely, vulnerable person desperately trying to survive, but a soldier in a formidable army, protecting each other with fierce loyalty, and marching as one. When the club makes a questionable decision—the hiring of an unproven manager; the precarious signing of an expensive player, or a new unethical owner who cares little for the team’s future—the supporters sense the danger as if it were their own; a direct threat to themselves that must be staved off. The fact that the supporters have absolutely no sway over the club’s major decisions makes no difference. It’s our tribe, we’re fully invested, and it must be protected at all costs. The sense of belonging that comes with following a football club is felt in the very marrow of our bones, and we’ll never turn our back on them. After being a supporter of a team for a prolonged period, to change teams is tantamount to treason; the offender an untrustworthy turncoat. We love our tribe and we’ll support them through thick and thin, no matter how embarrassing the performances.

The intense devotion that tribalism can create has obvious downsides, evidenced by the rise of British football hooliganism, when unquestionable loyalty leads to extreme violence. Football fans are taught that it’s good and proper to hate a rival team, just because they’re a rival team—an idiotic obligation in which all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Rival supporters are transformed into dark and deadly enemies, their basic humanity forgotten, and their pummelling justified. Our tribe is the epitome of everything good and true, theirs all that is wrong and false. Clear parallels can be drawn with nationalism and religion, where unbridled tribalism has the potential to create profound hatred. Though tribalism makes sports endlessly thrilling, evoking fervent emotion in its most dramatic moments, diligent caution is required to prevent us from slipping into illogical idiocy, in which other people can become objects of hate, guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different tribe than ours. The competitive nature of sports can warp games into mock battles, and though this is part of what makes them so exciting, the boundary between friendly competition and violent battle can become difficult to distinguish, especially when being swept along by an impassioned, five-hundred strong mob that screams for the blood of the opposition. Conformism for the sake of conformism is foolishly irrational, and in the realm of football, can quickly lead to hateful violence.

At their core, sports are just games, but our tribalistic nature imbues them with extraordinary passion, with the power to create joyful angels, or odious demons of us. A single kick can dispatch us into giddying euphoria, illustrated in each and every face in the photo above, or heart-wrenching despondency, dreams crushed into oblivion, until next season. It’s a rollercoaster ride of intense emotion, the highs non-existent without the lows; the sky-punching jubilance of victory nothing without the sharp sting of defeat. Tribalism is what makes sports so thrilling to experience, and as your club’s defender lurches forward and pokes the ball in the back of the net in the final minute of a game, sending your team soaring into the higher division, a temporary insanity takes over each and every supporter, flooded with fanatical, turbulent emotion. 

The team’s victory is your victory, and it feels indescribably fantastic.

The dangers of approval

1_fpjROQBti3jtZUmoScYb2wPhoto by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Approval is something that many of us greedily seek. Whether it’s regarding our looks, work performance, intelligence, or anything else that we suppose to be important, receiving a smile or a compliment from a fellow human kicks our reward system into action, and temporarily brightens our day. Many aspects of our society have approval at their foundation, social media being a particularly potent example. We all know how satisfying it feels to receive a truckload of virtual likes. The conclusion is that our actions are appropriate, even loved, and so we’re encouraged to repeat them.

Companion validation is rooted in evolution. Getting along with the individuals in our group was essential for survival; without it we’d have been cast out, and would have quickly found ourselves in the belly of a sabre-toothed tiger. As a result, approval is ingrained in us. But today’s world is drastically different to the past, and what was crucial for us back then isn’t necessarily what we need now.

Our insatiable appetite for approval can be crippling to our wellbeing. When we consistently look to others for validation, we’re relinquishing control of our own self-esteem, and anchoring it to the whimsies of the crowd. It’s no longer possible to rely on the only person who should be responsible for your prosperity – you. We’re selfish animals to the core; handing the command of your happiness to such creatures will inevitably end in tragedy.

“Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.” – Thomas Fuller

An Objective Leader Assessment survey found that 55% of people credit their value to what others think about them. It’s mind-boggling to consider that so many people put their trust in the judgment of others, when it’s their own judgment and values that should be the sole consideration. Are you happy continuing to live your life on somebody else’s terms? We need to extinguish the erroneous assumption that external approval will improve our lives. In fact, the opposite is true. We must retake control of our own destiny.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

How to break away from the herd, and be your own person? It’s all about your values, that inner light of truth; the most honest guide you’ll ever know. They imbue our ultimately meaningless lives with drive and purpose. A core value can be identified with things that just feel right to you. They’re entirely personal, and that’s what makes them so special. If you’re unsure what your values are, this article from MindTools may help. If you’d prefer something more thorough, you might consider reading The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, a fantastic guide on the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which also focuses on finding your values. Whichever you decide, write your values down, so that you can refer back to them.

Once clear on what gives your life meaning, try your absolute hardest to live it. You’ll find that life is a lot smoother when you’re living in synch with what is important to you. Over time, instead of clawing for approval from others, you’ll validate your own successes. Rather than having others approval, you may even be faced with stone-cold disapproval, which can sting our delicate egos.

“There are some values that you should never compromise to stay true to yourself; you should be brave to stand up for what you truly believe in even if you stand alone.” – Roy T. Bennett

Living by your values is tough going, and you’ll mess up constantly. The miracle that is mindfulness can teach you how to ignore that ruthlessly critical voice in your head which tells you to give up. Progress can only begin with awareness; the ability to identify whether you’re doing something for external approval, or something in line with your core purpose. The more you practice this skill, the better your life will become.

It’s important to point out that approval isn’t totally evil. It’s fine to receive praise from people, provided you don’t need it in order to feel worthy. It’s what the Stoics would call a preferred indifferent; nice to have, but ultimately worthless. Similarly, paying someone a genuine, heartfelt compliment is a beautiful thing to do, provided that the praised action doesn’t clash with your own values.

“One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Also, if we’re aiming for something and we receive external approval, this can boost our motivation. We just need to be sure that our aim is true, and intrinsically driven.

Fed up with your delicate self-esteem resting in the hands of other people? Take back what’s truly yours, get to know your core values, and start living a more honest and fulfilling life.

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