There’s no answer to this question, or rather there are too many answers, but it’s still worth asking: Why don’t we behave better?
Most of us understand what would make us healthy and happy. We build an image of our perfect lifestyle: eat well, exercise vigorously, do yoga with the sunrise, meditate twice a day, act kindly and helpfully at all times, avoid negativity and pessimism, forgive freely, and so on. We would cut out saturated fats, processed carbohydrates, caffeine, and other mood alterants. We’d discard our televisions and limit our web surfing. We’d spend quality hours with our loved ones during free time, and apply ourselves diligently during the entire workday. We’d be satisfied, saintly, and applauded all around.
So why don’t we act like this? Why do we carp at those nearest when we’re fatigued? Why do we eat ice cream instead of carrots? Why do we zone out before electronic media rather than reading to gain knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment? Why aren’t we better people?
Like I said, there’s no decisive answer to this question. Freud postulated an instinct for death operative in the unconscious, which drives us to destroy our own happiness. Those of us from highly dysfunctional families might be told we hold ourselves back to avoid psychically abandoning the ones who raised us. On the other hand, we might hear that the fault lies in low self esteem due to parental neglect and poor role modeling. Indeed, I’ve heard both explanations, and others, from various therapists over the years.
Then there’s the biblical explanation: a demonic consciousness drives us away from God and we, with our dangerous free will, go along with that agenda.
Eastern philosophies point to fundamental confusion about our true nature: we get trapped in the illusory material world with its unquenchable flames of desire, when we should locate ourselves instead in awareness of higher principles and the eternal ground of being.
Neuroscientists point to various mechanisms, including dopamine surges that drive us to seek short term pleasure rather than long term benefit.
The list of explanations goes on and on, as does our self-destructive activity. You may prefer some of these explanations more than others, but I don’t believe any of them truly captures the confusing experience of knowing what’s healthy but choosing what’s disastrous.
If we can’t explain why we fail ourselves, can we at least work out how to give our better instincts a fighting chance?
A while back I railed against the neuroscience paradigm, which seeks to explain great human truths in purely biological terms. Why focus on microscopic synapses to explain events that play out in vast spheres of social interaction? But in this case, I think neurophysiology can help us.
Studies of addiction have shown that people and animals are most inclined to compulsively consume chemicals that lead to feelings of pleasure within ten minutes of ingestion. A more rapid onset increases the addictive potency, and a slower onset lessens it. This is worth considering, because substance abuse is one of the most striking examples of behavior driven by short term gain in the face of long term destruction.
The point to take away is that when craving arises, your system is seeking rapid relief. Often, if you can ride out that ten minute window, the craving lessens. This is the advantage of meditation training: it bolsters our ability to endure discomfort long enough to make more sensible choices. By learning to outlast our destructive urges, we can find a freer decision space in which to align with better principles. We can hold our tongue and avoid insulting our spouse. We can leave the Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer. We can go running rather than sit on the couch to watch 30 Rock reruns.
So we don’t know why we fail ourselves, but we can acquire tools to help us remain faithful to our deepest values. This realization is part of a larger truth about ethical teachings. Wisdom traditions offer explanations for reality that are often untestable, but they provide guidelines for coping that have been proven many times. The stories about why life entraps us are less important than the strategies that help us avoid choosing harm over health.
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Last reviewed: 2 Oct 2011