If you’re reading this, you probably want to feel better, move more, and be free from pain and illness. Well, you’re not alone – we spend billions of dollars per year on products to help us do so. We are, in essence, a self-improvement nation.
But most of us aren’t living a life of optimal health. After all, roughly 50% of Americans have at least one chronic disease, 71% are overweight or obese, and “extreme stress” is on the rise. And that doesn’t even cover the myriad of other issues that influence our health, from depression to eating disorders to self-sabotaging beliefs and relationship problems.
It’s not for lack of trying that we’ve gotten here. Gyms, yoga studios, coaches, nutritional and health programs and apps continue to expand and blanket every corner of the Internet and our communities. Health professionals, trainers, and writers spend countless hours educating, advising, discussing and making optimal health enticing and fun (when possible).
But it’s unclear whether any of our efforts to build a healthier nation are working. The pessimist in me says that it kind of, sort of, isn’t. At least not to the degree it should be.
The problem doesn’t appear to be desire, as most people claim that they want desperately to lose weight, eat better, get active, relax and live a more balanced and joyful life. They consume self-improvement books like candy, gorge on motivational seminars and check out every fitness and nutrition craze that passes through their social network feed.
The problem comes with the follow-up.
Too often, what seems like mere minutes after a goal is announced, the diets get ditched, gym memberships lapse and those 5 mindful moments per day get replaced by even more clicks on stories about Kim Kardashian’s new makeup routine or Donald Trump’s latest gaffe.
In short, there is a fundamental disconnect between what we want, what is available, and what we’re doing.
And there’s a reason for it. We just have to find out what that reason is.
I don’t want to make this sound too easy. So to put this in context – there is a scientific basis on why behavior change is so difficult. Bad habits are developed over time, wired into the brain and triggered by external cues. They are built into each day and run on autopilot.
New habits, on the other hand, require focus, commitment, energy, a redesign of one’s environment and the backing of social support. And there are real obstacles to harnessing this energy and focus – the long hours at work, the soul-sucking drudgery of everyday tasks, the commute, the children to care for and elderly family to support. Nobody has enough time in their day, or at least that’s what we say.
Yet we do have time- we just choose to spend it on our cellphones, the Internet, TV, gossip magazines, and video games.
So what is going on?
Something in our unhealthy behavior is serving us. We just need to figure out what it is.
You can do it right now. Sit down, picture that bad habit you’d like to ditch and honestly ask, “How is this serving me?”
Let’s take overeating as an example. There are lots of reasons why you might be overeating that have nothing to do with your biology. The excess weight might offer security and comfort or align with the perception of yourself as heavy. You might be afraid of alienating your friends and family if you ate healthy or lost weight. You might be scared of who you’ll become or what will be expected of you if you’re thin.
Another example is stress. You might feel so stressed out that your brain is on fire, but you’re not willing to do anything about it. Perhaps it makes you feel alive; you might relish the camaraderie of being “stressed out” or equate it with accomplishment or progress. You might be too scared to slow down because of what you’ll discover about yourself if you do.
The lists could go on and on, and only you know why you do what you do.
If you are choosing to hold onto a bad behavior, it is serving you in some way.
Even if that way is – “hey, I really, really like the taste of this doughnut.” This reason is as good as any other. And once you recognize it, then you can start to do something about it (if only to find an alternative like oatmeal a bit tastier than the ones you’ve tried before).
Whatever behavior you are holding onto has some benefit. It might not be something you’re proud of or willing to admit. It might seem small and silly, or even counterintuitive.
Whatever it is that is serving you is standing in the way between who you are and who you want to be.
So pay attention to what you have to say. Because you can download app after app, try countless diets or fitness programs, read a thousand self-help books and shout from the rooftops that this will be your year! But if you don’t figure out why you persist in your bad habits and why you don’t adopt healthy ones, then it is unlikely that any of it will work in the long-term.
We act in accordance to how we view ourselves, what we perceive to deserve, and what we want and need. So forget about all the complicated diets and cutting-edge health apps and programs. Instead, just sit down, pinpoint your bad habit, the one that’s been seemingly impossible to break, and ask – how is it serving me?
You might just be surprised at the answer. But once you’ve got it, then you can work on change.
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