Our genetically-programmed behavior does not always serve us well in our modern environment.
When I began my practice more than 20 years ago, I still had a lot to learn. I had the skills and information to help sick people get well and healthy people stay well. But I thought that all I had to do was take a careful medical history, perform a thorough physical examination, and prepare detailed diet and lifestyle recommendations. Then, I thought, my patients would follow my advice diligently and get outstanding results.
But it did not always work that way. I found that people did not want to make drastic lifestyle changes, or give up their bad habits. They did not quickly or easily give up cigarettes, coffee, alcohol, and other drugs. The same was true for meat, fish, fowl, eggs, or dairy products, as well as oil, salt, and sugar.
My patients believed in magic. They believed that despite their bad habits, indiscretions, and lack of personal fortitude, the magic of modern medicine somehow would enable them to make a few small changes that required minimal effort and would instantly overcome years of abuse to their health.
Many of these patients had been given poor advice by their doctors. They had been told that changing the color of their meat from red to white, or that being “moderate” in continuing their unhealthful habits was all that was required. Some patients thought that their problems were “all in the head”; some thought that their conditions were the “inevitable result of aging.” Many thought that they just might have to “learn to live with it.” It was frustrating to see people who were sick and dying, suffering needlessly, hanging on to the very habits that caused their problems.
Over time, I began to observe that the patients who did the best in the long run were those who developed a reality-based philosophy of life. It was not enough to tell these individuals what to do, they wanted to understand how and why it worked. At that point, I realized that my role as a physician would involve more re-education than I originally thought.
During these past 20 years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of helping several thousand individuals learn to get healthy and stay healthy. I would like to share some of the information that can help you do the same. Let’s take a look at some of the things that influence our behavior tendencies. To a large extent, our behavior – the choices we make – determines the quantity and the quality of our lives.
On one level, humans are like other animals: genetically-programmed, biologically-driven organisms whose fundamental purpose in life is survival. (By survival I mean getting enough to eat and not getting eaten.) But humans also operate on an entirely different level. We have developed the most powerful tool that the world has ever seen-language. Language has allowed us to dominate the planet. Unlike other animals, who acquire knowledge only through direct, individual experience, language allows humans to accumulate knowledge and pass it on. Language is the power behind the success of our species.
Knowledge which might take an individual a lifetime to accumulate can be passed on in a matter of moments by listening to someone speak or by reading their words. This enables us to benefit from the cumulative life experiences of those who came before us.
One outgrowth of our unique gift of language has been the development of a mathematically-based system to help us determine what is real-which we call science. The scientific method is not perfect, but it is a tremendously powerful tool that helps us separate fact from fantasy. One of the direct benefits of this system is our ability to monitor and evaluate factors that either enhance or impair health.
Pleasure vs. happiness
Most animals spend virtually all of their time trying to get enough to eat and not get eaten. But we humans have been able to gain control over our environment to such an extent-at least in the powerful, developed countries-that we have been able to get enough to eat, not get eaten, and still have some time left over. Now that we can look beyond mere survival, we can explore what gives life meaning, or put another way, what makes us happy.
Many people confuse pleasure with happiness. This can be a big problem and can lead to some very unhappy results. It is imperative that we recognize the difference between pleasure and happiness.
Pleasure is a stereotypical response of your nervous system to specific stimulation. Food, sexual activity, even drugs can stimulate your nervous system in such a way that you can experience pleasure. Happiness is an emotional state that occurs spontaneously when you perceive the overall balance of your life experience as highly positive.
Many people, when unhappy, mistakenly assume that they are lacking pleasure in their lives. They assume that they have a pleasure deficiency and go about trying to stimulate the pleasure-sensing mechanisms of their nervous system. Drug addiction is an extreme example of pleasure-seeking behavior. Drug addicts often will destroy their lives just to induce a temporarily-pleasurable response. Crack cocaine addicts reportedly have sold their infant children for a few rocks of cocaine. But no matter how much cocaine or other drugs an addict uses, no matter how much the drug stimulates the pleasure-sensing mechanisms in the brain, he or she never will achieve happiness through drug use.
The need for planning
To achieve happiness, we need to develop a happiness strategy. That strategy is to learn to delay gratification and not to be driven solely by short-term, pleasure-seeking behavior.
Imagine a person who has lumber and nails, and decides he wants to build a house. Suppose he begins to randomly nail boards together, hoping a wonderful house will result. Without a plan, what are the chances that these random actions will result in a nice house? But with careful planning, a good set of blueprints, and lots of hard work and patience, the likelihood of success increases dramatically. We need to approach our health and happiness this way. Without a plan, we are unlikely to create happiness for ourselves.
Craving concentrated foods
There is a reason why we find some things pleasurable and others painful. There was a time when our very survival depended upon knowing the distinction between what benefited us and what harmed us. Many of the behaviors that served us well in a natural environment-when our focus was getting enough to eat and not getting eaten-may not serve us well today.
Consider our desire to eat concentrated foods-foods high in calories. The earliest humans lived in a natural setting where food was scarce. They needed to eat as much concentrated food as they could get, just to survive. Those who were successful at getting enough food to survive passed that trait on to succeeding generations. We all still have this basic instinct in our genetic makeup to eat concentrated food when it is available. But now we live in an entirely different world.
Most readers of Health Science magazine live in an environment characterized by food excess, not by food scarcity. In a natural setting there are no chocolate chip cookie trees, no hamburger bushes, and no refined or processed foods. But in our increasingly artificial world, there are fast “foods” available on virtually every corner. These processed foods are designed to appeal to our genetically-driven instincts, and they fool our natural senses. Our natural desire to eat concentrated food whenever it is available no longer serves our needs, since we are living at a time when concentrated foods are everywhere.
It is not easy to be healthy and happy in an environment that seems designed to make us sick and miserable.
How many people do you know who drive two hours each day, in heavy traffic, to jobs they hate, to work with people they dislike, to make a product they detest, for a company they despise, to make money to buy products they do not need, under the illusion that if they just could cram a little more short-term, pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent behavior into their lives, they might be happy.
Why is it that so many of us continue to participate in behavior that is known to cause pain, disease, and premature death? Why do we continue to use harmful drugs like tobacco, alcohol, and coffee? Why do we continue to eat animal products and junk food, despite the known dangers?
We do these things because we like them. They give us pleasure. While it is true that there is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure-seeking behavior, it can be destructive, especially if it becomes the primary focus of life.
Sadly, the primary motivation of many people is pleasure-seeking behavior. They believe that if they are not happy, they must have a pleasure deficiency. They live under the illusion that if they can just squeeze more pleasure into their lives, they will be happy.
This life of illusion begins when we are young. We teach our children to be drug addicts. We teach them that the way you deal with problems is through drugs. When we have a headache, we take a pill. When we have a fever, we take another pill. When we have a cough, we drink a syrup. When dad has a hard day and needs to relax, he drinks alcohol. When we are so sleep-deprived that we can hardly get out of bed in the morning, we drink a highly destructive nervous-system stimulant called caffeine, hidden in our tea or coffee. We give this same addictive drug to children in the form of chocolate and cola drinks.
Social roadblocks to health
There are many barriers to making diet and lifestyle changes that I call the social roadblocks to health. The human nervous system is wired to recognize social conformity. When an individual challenges the social norm by being “different,” it can create psychological pain in people around them. This pain is called cognitive dissonance. People do not like how cognitive dissonance makes them feel, so they work very hard to eliminate it and, if necessary, you.
People evaluate by comparison. In order to feel better about themselves, people either try to improve their lot in life, or try to bring you down, so that they feel better by comparison. Since most people do not get enough sleep, they are too tired to improve themselves. They may put what little energy they do have into trying to bring you down.
When they see you trying to eat well, they may try to tempt you with a very stimulating, high-fat dessert, or something else that you no longer choose to eat. If you decline, they may comment along the line of, “What’s the point in being healthy if there is no joy in life?” or “You are no fun anymore!” or “Don’t you think you’re carrying this health thing a little too far?”
They also may become instant nutrition experts. When you were eating hot dogs, fried chicken, cupcakes, or candy, no one said a thing. But just start bringing healthy meals to work, and you may start hearing comments like, “You can’t live on that!” And, “Where are you going to get your protein?” What they really feel, but are unable to express, is that by improving yourself, you are making them feel uncomfortable about themselves.
Make a plan for success
Successful individuals begin new projects with their goal in mind. They focus on the important things and do not get distracted by the lesser things, no matter how urgent they might seem at the moment. If happiness is your goal, remember that health is an important foundation for happiness, and that health results from healthful living.
Healthful living means taking responsibility for four main areas of your life: diet-eating the right foods, for the right reasons; environment-maintaining a healthy home and workplace; activity-getting enough exercise, rest and sleep; and psychology-engaging in productive activity and developing effective interpersonal skills.
We are all different, but the equalizing factor in all of our lives is time. We all get 168 hours per week. At most, we have about 30,000 days left to live. The challenge for each of us is how to use our time to promote the greatest health and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.