Willpower Project 5 of 11: Mistaking Wanting for Happiness

It’s been a heck of a week. Each day that I slipped past my self-imposed Monday deadline for these posts I found it a little bit easier to keep slipping the date. I told myself that I’d do it a little bit later, the next morning, then the next afternoon, and here we are at Thursday and I’m just sitting down to write. (Then revisions on Saturday and finally posting the following Monday.) However, in the spirit of self-compassion, I’m not going to beat myself up about slipping the date. I had an extraordinarily busy weekend that’s spilled into an extraordinarily busy week. As such I’ve had to prioritize other immediate needs over my desire to write. “I need” trumps “I want.” This variability in life was made as a rational decision, knowing that it would impact other aspects of my life. I am mindful of how these choices impacted my time for writing and I am moving forward without beating myself up about being late with the post.

Last Week:
The chapter on moral licensing impacted me significantly and as a result I’ve been extremely aware of my impulse to trade “good” behaviors for “bad” behaviors. This came up in the idea of working hard and earning a reward as a result. As an example, last Saturday I spread roughly for cubic yards of crushed rock and then felt like I had a license to make uncharacteristically poor food choices in the form of eating a lot of chocolate. I knew that I was making the choice in the moment, and justified it through my hard work spreading the gravel. I’ve had more success in viewing decisions or actions as neither good nor bad. They are just decisions and they are either aligned with my long term goals, or they are not aligned. This helps me to make consistent decisions and prevents me from slipping into the idea of a moral bank account. When I make decisions I gain no credit towards vice, nor do I create some kind of moral debt when I indulge.
I also watched a lot of other people engage in moral licensing. Particularly with food. Comments like “I had a salad yesterday” or “I’m going to the gym later today” were surprisingly common once I started to look for them. While drafting this post, in fact, I watched half a dozen people morally license a pastry purchase at a coffee shop leveraging both past and future “good” behavior to justify the indulgence.

The second experiment, reducing variability in life, has been more difficult to maintain since I’ve have extremely uncommon events that are all occurring in rapid succession including selling our house, travel, and a wedding. I was not particularly effective at reducing diet variability, maintaining exercise, or my writing through the last week and a half. I was, however, able to be mindful of my choices and the degree to which they aligned with long term goals. I ate ice cream and tortillas mindfully and with full awareness of the impact. I hope to be able to reduce variability in the upcoming week as things settle down a bit.

Chapter 5: Mistaking wanting for Happiness
This chapter is all about dopamine. Before reading, I was under the impression that dopamine was released when we achieve a reward and promoted a sense of happiness for achieving our goal. In this chapter, McGonigal resituates dopamine as the chemical that helps us work toward a goal. In this case, when we want something, dopamine is released in anticipation of reward, sending a signal that we’ll be really happy once we attain the goal we’re working on. Essentially, dopamine spikes in anticipation of a goal thus motivating the hard work it takes to achieve said goal, then it backs off once the reward is achieved.

McGonigal’s explanation made me think of dopamine as something of a gateway chemical, in that it can lead to other temptations. The spike of dopamine encourages us to follow impulse as opposed to reason in pursuit of new experiences. When we are presented with new experiences, new tastes, new ideas, our dopamine engages heavily in anticipation of a novel experience, promising our system that we will experience future pleasure. When those new experience don’t live up to our expectations we seek out additional new experiences in a attempt to fulfill dopamine’s promise that we’ll experience something great. This is easily manipulated by advertising that promises the new version of a product you already enjoy.

When focused, dopamine is extremely positive. It is an essential motivator that helps us pursue goals and attain rewards. The challenge is that sometimes false rewards masquerade as meaningful. We regularly experience an overabundance of dopamine-triggering stimuli such as the smell of baked goods, sexually stimulating imagery, and that incredible sounds that alerts you of a new text or email. Each one contains that promise of some wonderful experience and so our brains pump dopamine, encouraging us to act on those impulses. The promise of immediate reward easily circumvents our rational ability to plan our actions and we find ourselves making impulsive choices before we’ve even thought about the consequences. I identify with this most with the experience of eating large quantities of food before I’ve even realized that I’m eating. Salty snacks are particularly dangerous for me as I can easily polish off an entire bag of chips or popcorn without even realizing that I’m eating.

The willpower experiments for the week leverage both the beneficial and dangerous sides of dopamine. The first is to actively dopaminize an “I will” challenge by creating a strong image of the desired outcome. If you’re scared of flying, actively visualize the benefits of getting on the plane and your body will give you some dopamine, promising good feelings. The second experiment is to mindfully indulge and observe the extent to which the actual reward experience aligns with expectation. In particular the concept is to see if you need as much of a reward to get the desired feeling. Is it one piece of chocolate, or ten? One beer, or six? The hypothesis is that by being mindful, and fully experiencing the feeling of indulgence, we reach satiety much sooner than if we indulge without thinking. Additionally, mindful indulgence helps us understand if we’ve correctly aligned our rewards with our desires. Did you really want that doughnut, or would a small piece of chocolate have taken care of the feeling? We can only know this by being mindful.

For myself, the mindful indulgence will likely come in the idea of taking a break. Taking a moment to put work aside and watch TV, play some video games, or read a couple comics is a strong indulgent behavior for me and I’ve definitely found myself becoming mindful and realizing that my short break turned into two hours of video games unexpectedly. Hopefully by being mindful of the experience I can enjoy taking a few minutes of a break, thus spending less time in break mode.

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