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.

Looking down on others

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 1.24.31 pmStereosonic festival – Australia

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of being better than someone else; of tilting our heads and arrogantly looking down our noses at them. For me, this behaviour was exhibited when attending a now-cancelled music festival in Australia called Stereosonic, a dance music extravaganza for which 75% of the audience were either steroid-fuelled male beefcakes, or scantily-clad, tits-out barbie dolls, both with the same levels of self-esteem as a fired McDonalds worker. My judgments of such people are based on my beliefs that you won’t find much genuine, long-lasting fulfilment by inflating and flaunting your bodies, like peacocks with gym memberships and extra chromosomes. I’m extremely confident in this belief, and the result is condescension.

You may choose to look down on someone because of their dietary choices, perhaps going so far as to ruthlessly rebuke them. This is a trait for which some vegans have become notorious, and the reaction is often rebounded condescension, and not-so-playful piss-taking. Maybe your judgment reaches harsh levels when you observe a casually-smoking mother, whose plumes of vapour appear to be forming a circle around her innocent child.

Whatever it is that evokes condescension in you, it’s rarely a constructive thing. Though we may be confident in our judgment of the situation, we’re usually acting out of insecurity; our criticisms are often formed because we feel that we are lacking in some way, and so we judge in order to feel better about ourselves. Attacking from an elevated position is satisfying; it’s a temporary state of power and confidence. We’re right, and they’re wrong. We’re smart, and they’re dumb. We’re quite clearly better than them, and travelling on a superior path.

One of the biggest mistakes that we make when being condescending is our arrogant confidence in being 100% accurate. Our world is obscenely complex – every choice that we make and every circumstance that we find ourselves in is comprised of a huge number of intricacies. It’s usually arrogant to assume that we can recognise, analyse and conclude that somebody is making a bad choice, based on our limited understanding of the situation. Even experienced professionals are only working from the knowledge available in their field, and are just as fallible as everyone else. While I may believe that inflating your muscles in order to impress others isn’t a good tactic for achieving contentment, I don’t really know whether that’s true. I can certainly make assumptions based on my arm-chair psychology knowledge, but these are flimsy foundations on which to elevate yourself. Even the scopes of geniuses have limited clarity.

Some choices are, of course, clearly bad. Someone subject to a severe cocaine addiction shouldn’t continue to ingest cocaine, unless they want to end up killing themselves. Such clear-cut examples appear to be a rarity though – the situation is often too complex for us to make an accurate judgment on the positive value of a life choice.

One possible cause of our tendency towards condescension is the idea of cognitive dissonance. This is the uneasy feeling that appears when a belief is contradicted by another belief, and you suddenly feel unsure of yourself. Much of our confidence is hinged on the certainty of our beliefs, and when people act in ways that go against them, we react with condescension, because we’re desperate to cling onto our own confidence. We don’t like being wrong, and so we idealise our own choices and beliefs in order to protect our delicate ego. The fact that the world is extremely complicated doesn’t even factor into our thinking; we just climb onto that high horse of ours – a more comfortably superior position.

People invested in a given perspective shall—when confronted with disconfirming evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective. — Wikipedia on cognitive dissonance

There’s a few reasons why you should change your condescending ways, the biggest of which is sociability. You’re not going to form good relationships with people if you look down your nose at them – it’s an awful way to be treated. A nasty habit is also being formed, which might end up with you being a resident of, or perhaps even the president of, Cuntsville. Habitants of this place constantly focus on the bad, and can become deeply depressed in the process.

If you’ve decided that you want your condescending habit to be over, then compassion is the thing that it should be replaced with. Compassion is the nemesis of condescension; it’s about displaying tender understanding, rather than arrogant judgment. As humans, we all suffer a great deal, and we’d do well to remember this fact when we’re casting judgment on another person’s choices. Everyone is just trying to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. Even if you’re supremely confident in their failure to make good choices, treating them with condescension helps neither one of you. The few bad choices that are apparent may be concealed by a treasure-trove of good ones, and unless you can display the exquisite compassion required to love your fellow humans, you’ll never find out about them. We must assume that everyone we meet is better than us in some way.

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s helpful to remember that we often have little control over the choices that we make. Vowing to lose 10 kilos usually doesn’t result in us losing 10 kilos. Our willpower has a tendency to be pitifully inept. Casting aspersions on people’s choices is especially callous when considering this fact, not to mention hypocritical.

Another reason to be compassionate about the apparent failings of others is the amount of terrible and easily-accessible information in the world. Some bad choices are made from a totally warped view of what will make you happy; of what is valuable. Some poor souls may live their entire lives acting out poisonous beliefs, with zero capacity or understanding on how to improve their situation. You simply can’t find good information if you don’t know how to.

There’s also our culture to consider, a powerful motivating force that can shape negative behaviours. Noxious celebrity magazines are plastered with images of stick-thin, perfectly-chiseled stars who become role models for impressionable everyday people. Is it really surprising that they will do whatever necessary to emulate the richest, most successful people on the planet? A culture doesn’t have the best interests of its people at heart, despite its potential to influence our choices. Looking down on a girl who injects her face with botox might seem justified, until you consider her a sufferer of society. And even then, what makes you so arrogant to decide that she’s making a bad choice?

We must learn to replace our condescension with a more caring, compassionate understanding. Don’t be so cocky to assume that your beliefs always reflect reality – that probably isn’t the case. Consistently challenging your beliefs and updating them will imbue you with guru-like wisdom, and the accompanying compassion that you exhibit will create long-lasting bonds with those around you.

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How pleasure is destroying our planet

1_iqlaGvODrgqDlXD4_SLBMAPhoto by NASA on Unsplash

If the boffins of the world were able to invent a machine that magically pulled everyone’s desires from their heads, analysis would likely show a motivating force more prevalent than anything else: pleasure. It pervades and influences much of our lives, acting as a primary catalyst for seeking out thrilling sex, delicious food, hypnotic music, and a glut of other experiences too numerous to mention. Sigmund Freud, the pioneering psychoanalyst who may have been a little too enamoured with his mother, developed a “pleasure principle” theory which posited that people have an innate desire to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. His insights demonstrate that pleasure is a huge and inescapable driving force in our lives.

Leap back a couple of millennia, and observe a philosophy that had pleasure as its primary goal: hedonism.

“Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night […] These things alone are the concern of men.” – Siduri

The hedonists believed pleasure to be the highest good, and a legitimate goal of human life. This might be construed as a mortally selfish philosophy, but social obligation and altruism were still considered important, containing hedonistic value in themselves. The world’s most famous wanderers – the Jews – also believed that mankind was created for pleasure, with “Eden” being a translation of the Hebrew word for it. This is the reason that God placed Adam and Eve in the perpetually pleasurable and shameless Garden of Eden. If it wasn’t for that pesky danger noodle sweetly hissing into Eve’s ear, we might not have ended up in such a terrible mess.

In many people’s minds, pleasure is synonymous with all things good. It’s the toothy grin that appears on your face whenever presented with a freshly roasted joint of lamb; the satisfaction that follows after realising that you’ve created an excellent piece of work; the erection that springs to life when presented with something soft and curvy. All truly awesome experiences, to be sought after and savoured. The problem occurs with imbalance, when your primary aim is solely pleasure and nothing else. Attempting to shut out every other emotion aside from pleasure is laughably foolish, sickeningly unhealthy, and completely unrealistic. Our minds and bodies are magnificently complex; we’re equipped to experience a huge range of astonishing, varied emotions, including those interpreted as negative. Many of these unfavourable emotions have a immense measure of utility, which if we just looked a little closer, could be employed to our advantage. Attempting to live your life at one end of the scale just results in disillusionment and burnout. You must take the good with the bad.

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death’?” – Nietzsche

Pleasure and displeasure; joy and suffering; up and down – these aren’t mortal-enemy dichotomies, they’re part of a single, unbreakable scale. It’s impossible to eliminate one without the other. Remove pleasure, and displeasure must go along with it. What a dreadfully boring, grey world we’d live in if we just experienced pleasure and it’s accompanying emotions. It’s a place similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, a society in which negative experience is expelled, but at the expense of truth; of how our lives should be honestly lived.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A modern version of this idea can be found in the movie Demolition Man, which takes place in a “happy joy joy” dystopian future. Ironically, the entire movie is a gluttonous guilty pleasure.

One of the biggest issues to arise out of pleasure seeking at all costs is economic materialism. Buying stuff provides us with temporary pleasure, and this drives our capitalist economy at an increasingly devastating environmental cost. The relentless warnings from the scientific community don’t appear to be loud enough for our selfish ears, not when there’s pleasure to be had. How did humanity ever reach such a disturbing level of ignorance? The tipping point that we’ve reached can no longer be disregarded, and unless curbed, our greedy, implacable pursuit of pleasure will be what pushes us to self-destruction. Not only is this obviously our most foolish mistake, it’s also completely misguided, because accumulating more and more stuff has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. Hungarian economist Tibor Scitovsky named this a “joyless economy”, in which people eternally chase after comforts, to the detriment of happiness. Research also suggests that when we deny ourselves a pleasure, the next time that we obtain it, we savour it much more. You’ll appreciate your delicious coffee more intensely if you can muster the willpower to have it just once a week. By curbing our substantial impulses towards pleasure, we’re not only making ourselves happier, but we’re saving our planet in the process. This isn’t to suggest that we should become hunger-ravaged ascetics, holding a firm hand up against every possible pleasure that appears before us, but instead take a more cautionary approach in our lives, and consider your own happiness before dive-bombing into temptation. Your life probably wouldn’t be better if it included a petrol-guzzling V8, regardless of the narcissistic pride you might feel when your arm is perched out of its side-window. Neither will it be measurably improved with a pair of fetching designer glasses. These things are ultimately worthless, and just for show.

Pleasure is a good thing when pursued at a healthy and responsible level. Life would be much less exciting without it. But when it presents itself before us, we must have the mindfulness to pause for a moment and consider whether it’s good for us and our planet in the long-run. We have a choice to make: voracious in-the-moment pleasure, or a balanced forgoing that could slowly tip the environmental scales back in our favour, ensuring our continued existence on this glorious planet.

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