“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
–T. S. Eliot
Coming back to the U.S. this time has been less of a culture shock, but allowed for renewed perspective, which has always been a pretty cool consequence of living abroad. It’s the commercials! My last post I talked about the ads while visiting friends in Djibouti and seeing ads for weight loss while you are in a place like Djibouti, but it’s full-on here: infomercials for the next exercise system and DVD set courtesy of Beach Body; Chuck Norris and the Total Gym he endorses; more Nutrisystem, and other products. Between the infomercials, and regular commercials, one might have to ask… How do we have an obesity problem with so many options and opportunities to crush our souls and be in world-class shape?
Well, there are other kinds of commercials. Mostly food. I didn’t google what the percentage of ad time is devoted to food, but anecdotally, it’s a lot. All the major franchises from, of course, McDonald’s to Dunkin’ Donuts, to Subway, Chipotle, TGI Friday’s… you get the idea. They are everywhere! Images of food on all kinds of billboards and all the small shops with their posters. You walk into a Starbucks to see all their delicious looking pastries right there in the glass case. Eating at a family diner, which we have, the portions are ginormous! I’ve talked about how it was easier where we were living in Guinea (West Africa) because we couldn’t eat the street food, so we only shopped once a week. We had a great deal of control over what we bought with very limited outside influence. I would buy a can of Pringles for the weekend, but when they were gone, they were gone. I was not in a position to just run down to the corner store after seeing that commercial advertising them.
In three weeks of being home, I have eaten more here than I have in the last 6 months there! The struggle is real, and I am sympathetic to the reality of how difficult it is to resist the “bad” foods amidst the constant media bombardment.
But there might be a solution; a way of circumventing our brain so that it is far less influenced by all the Subway and Burger King ads. What all this bombardment creates is a ton of temptation. The trouble, then, is the reality that it takes a lot of willpower to resist those temptations, and willpower is finite; you only have so much in a day. Each day you have X amount, and as you tire and fatigue, it runs out. So, the second link is a video that discusses techniques to help manage your willpower and how to, over time and with small steps, increase and strengthen your willpower – not necessarily by facing temptations and forcing yourself to resist like we would train our muscles – but, in fact, how to build habits and create environments for automatic behavior so that you don’t have to fire that frontal cortex so much. This is important, because the first link with Professor Robert Sapolsky talks about that very thing. He cites John Green’s study of allowing study participants to cheat on a test. What they found was those who did cheat, their frontal cortex lit up like a Christmas tree. They were wrestling with the “do I, or don’t I?” The initial hypothesis, then, was that for those who did not cheat, their frontal cortex must have really lit up and simply overpowered the temptation. But that was not what they found. For those who didn’t cheat, there was very little activity. He describes it as a state of grace. It was automatic. For those who didn’t cheat on the test, it was because, “You don’t cheat on tests.” It was that simple. The challenge will be (and it’s not easy) to reach a point where you don’t eat crap, because you just don’t eat crap. You will no longer even consider it, despite all the ads and ease of availability. The second video will offer some techniques to help in that transition of it becoming an automatic behavior.
I will finish with my personal example. I used to smoke. I used to love smoking! It went great with a cup of coffee and it was great when having a beer with the boys. Oh, and road trips! Fantastic. I was never a pack-a-day smoker. I would rarely touch one during football or track season, but during the summers when I was working in the factory, it was perfect during those 10-minute breaks.
I also had a unique challenge. Unlike so many who are addicted, yet hate smoking (but do so anyways), I loved it! But I also loved playing rugby and all my other sports, and it is a no-brainer how bad one is for the other. So, on my 26th birthday, I said enough was enough. Casually smoking even as little as I was, is still too much for the lifestyle I wanted and the profession I was in. I had quit in the past every sports season, but as soon as exam week started, or my summer back in the factory began, I would give myself permission to have one, which always led to another. This time around I created a rule for myself. It was a simple rule: I would never inhale again. This would defeat the point of having a cigarette, but would allow me, on very rare and special occasions, to enjoy a proper cigar. Good cigars are expensive, so I knew I wouldn’t be buying them all that often. That has been my rule, and I haven’t given smoking a cigarette a second thought in 10 years. I also, this past spring with a couple mates who worked at the Embassy, kicked back with a glass of fine Merlot and, as the sun was setting over the peninsula and a slight breeze took the edge off from another hot, dry day, we enjoyed our really good cigars as we contemplated and discussed just how different where we were is from where we have been.
The Neuroscience of Lies, Honesty, and Self-Control | Robert Sapolsky