Relationships

Why Don’t We Do What We Know Is Good For Us?

We know our lives will be better if we take care of ourselves, yet we often don’t do so

I was depressed. My husband and I found out that money we were expecting had fallen through, and I felt blindsided. Suddenly our future was clouded with uncertainty, and my thoughts spiraled with multiple worst-case scenarios. I spent about a week like this, barely sleeping, not accomplishing anything and feeling no joy for life. In my twenties, I would have stayed in this state for a long time, but now I have a tool — a skill I can turn to when life gets rough. I meditated.

As soon as I felt depression descend upon me, I started meditating daily. It worked. The thoughts stopped spiraling. The disasters I imagined seemed outlandish rather than likely. And once the darkness lifted, I felt more positive than I had in a long time. I knew everything would be OK. I started making concrete plans of how we could bring in more income. I felt gratitude for all the things I have in my life and I felt at peace.

I know meditation has this effect on me, and the experience made me wonder: If meditation is so beneficial, why did I wait until I was depressed to start doing it regularly? Why wasn’t I meditating every day to begin with? If I had, I probably never would have sunk so low in the first place. I know I’m not the only one who lives with this contradiction. Many of us act in ways which go against our best interest. Why don’t we do we what we know is good for us?

Exercise, eating right, spending time doing meaningful things — for many of us, these activities are synonymous with procrastination, avoidance and feelings of guilt. We know our lives will be better if we take care of ourselves, yet we don’t do so. Humans are tricky that way.

Psychologists offer different explanations for why we don’t do the things we know are good for us. Fear is one. Everything that is known is comfortable, like eating mac 'n' cheese, not going to the gym and not meditating regularly. We don’t make changes in our behavior because we fear change. We fear failure, too — another barrier to adjusting our behavior.

Absence of self-love is another theory offered to explain this contradiction. Because we don’t love and honor ourselves, we don’t do the things that will make us feel better.

But whatever the reason, this is one of those dilemmas that hours of therapy might not resolve. Because even if we understand why we behave a certain way, it doesn’t mean we’re going to act differently in the future. The most effective way to change your behavior is, of course, to change your behavior.

It might seem daunting, but there are ways to approach changing behavior to make it less so. For example, starting small. If meditating for a half hour every day seems out of reach (it’s not, but that’s the story I tell myself), then perhaps I can aim for ten minutes a day. Once I’ve started there, I’ll probably go longer, but I have to get myself there in the first place.

Having compassion for oneself is also key. If I castigate myself for not meditating, it’s only going to discourage me from getting back on schedule. We can channel Stuart Smalley on this one. Though Al Franken parodies “I’m good enough” brilliantly in this recurring SNL sketch, it’s a worthy mantra.

But there’s one more approach to changing behavior, and I believe it’s the most powerful: mindfulness. You don’t have to make time for mindfulness. You just have to commit to being present, as much as possible, in any given moment. Like, right now.

Sometimes I’m on the Internet (mindlessly) and I experience a mindful moment. I realize what I’m doing, that I’m spending time doing nothing that is useful for me or anyone else. And when that happens, I stop. Non-judgment is part of the mindfulness approach, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. I still judge myself for wasting time, but at least I do stop. All it takes is that one moment of awareness.

What if all my moments were mindful? The thought blows my mind. But mindfulness isn’t about advance planning. It’s about making a commitment to do my best to be present, one moment at a time. I’m still not entirely sure why we’re not good to ourselves, but I do know that in those aware moments, I’m much more likely to meditate or do something else I know is good for me or my family. In those moments, I make the space to live fully.

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