Why Do We Avoid What is Good For Us?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from TJ with 532 votes] is Why do we avoid what is good for us?

Some people don’t eat well, others avoid exercise, and yet others are sufficiently comfortable at work that they don’t have the initiative to take a leap forward. I, for example, have a wife that I adore and do virtually everything with. However, our comfort means that we don’t maintain or build our network of friends. This is despite knowing the value of close friends and the fact that we enjoy when we do get out with friends.

The short answer is many of the things we know are good for us require short term sacrifices to obtain long term rewards. Due to our evolutionary history the older, and in some ways most powerful, parts of our brains naturally tend to prefer things that have short term rewards. In the time before agriculture and civilization finding food and shelter were constant challenges. Our ancestors who did not seek immediate rewards often did not live long enough to reproduce. The result, after millions of successful years, is that we are a species that hasn’t adjusted yet to when there is an abundance of things that used to be scarce (e.g. high caloric food, access to news/media). Our short term bias often works against us in modern life.

And of course our higher brains, the part that can imagine and set goals, finds it easy to dream of behaving differently, as those dreams tend to be ignorant of the powers of the peanut sized amygdala in our brains, rooted in survival instincts developed from ancient times, that drive much of our behavior. We’re also often blind to the powers of corporations and advertisers to use media to influence our behavior in ways that heavily benefit them (another challenge our ancestors didn’t have to face).

Scientist Clayton R. Cook offers three reasons why we don’t do what’s good for us:

  1. Lack of Awareness – we don’t really know what’s good (as there is much conflicting information about health, life and what is good)
  2. Lack of Permission – we have limited time and often choose what we’re pressured to do over what is best for us
  3. Obstacles & Roadblocks – prior commitments, self-control, peer pressure and lack of awareness of how habits work.

The good news is the popularity of the science of habits has soared in recent years (See How To Build A New Habit). We now understand much more about how to use the habits of our brains to help us rather than hurt us. In the situations you mention, it helps to break decisions down into smaller pieces that are easier to master. Another factor is making decisions once that last for a long time (reducing the short term pressure). A third is to have public/social commitments tied to them. For example always reserving Saturday evening on your calendar to meet friends at the (same) local bar (or your living room), and to have a recurring calendar invite with specific people to do it, greatly increases the odds it will happen regularly. Once it becomes familiar and the default behavior, and one reinforced by other people you care about (who may have more motivation for the habit on days when you don’t, and vice-versa), the short term vs. long term pressure fades: you’re not thinking about it in those terms anymore.

But of course all commitments require compromises (e.g. opportunity cost) – do we really, deep down want to behave in a different way, or do we just like thinking that we do? Sometimes our ego’s are in denial of our deeper feelings for what’s best for our lives. It takes experimentation to sort out the difference between what you want and what you think you want (or think you should want). Or how to decide when you need to push yourself to grow and get out of the comforts of complacency, or go easier on yourself. We have a fantasy that there are people with perfect habits, who live perfect lives, but I’m often surprised by how a mastery of external habits, especially those well endowed in the robotic allure of ‘productivity’, can have little bearing on a person’s true internal quality of life, or the quality of life they share with those closest to them.


5 Responses to “Why Do We Avoid What is Good For Us?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    “We have a fantasy that there are people…”

    The story of my life is dropping fantasies that seem obvious, logical and common sense, but are in fact fantasies.

    It does me good to read the columns of journalist Andy Rooney who reported on real life, not offensively, but with a spoonful of humour as sugar. He was the sort who would realize the photographs in Home and Garden magazine were unreal.

    I like how Canadian humorist Red Green would always end his weekly show, “We’re all in this together; I’m pulling for you.” That, and “keep your stick on the ice.”

    1. Scott Berkun

      Indeed – it’s a silly thing how easily we chase the illusions of how other people *seem* to be – one of the reasons I like reading biographies of famous people is the insight that they often had all the same problems, or worse, than the rest of us do, it’s just since they weren’t our brother/neighbor/boss we don’t see those elements of what their life was like (e.g. how stressed out they were, or how unhappy they were about X or Y, etc.)

  2. Linda

    I think your ending sentence would be a great topic for another post. “We have a fantasy that… but I’m often surprised… little bearing on a person’s true internal quality of life, or the quality of life they share with those closest to them”

    Outwardly “together” but in real life a quite different picture.


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