This one or That one?
The other day I was walking down the street, minding my own business. I had forgotten my iPod, so I was just lazily listening to the everyday sounds drifting around as I slowly made my way towards wherever it was that I was going to end up. I wanted to take the train downtown, but since it was Saturday, they only run every hour. I had just missed the last one, so I had an hour to kill.
Eventually, I knew I was going to end up back at the strain station, but between now (which was really then) and then I had an hour to kill, and a couple of internally accepted restrictions.
A word about restrictions. OK, maybe a couple words about restrictions. Basically there are two kinds of restrictions. Internally imposed, and externally imposed. Most of the restrictions are internally imposed. Now, before you click off to another blog describing something easier to stomach, allow me to explain myself.
If somebody points a gun at your head, and says “you’re money or your life,” (Henny Young man jokes notwithstanding) you’d likely see this as an externally imposed restriction. Not entirely. You still have the choice to give the other person your money (which in this day and age may not buy you much), or go simply give him the finger (which would most certainly not lead to a happy ending).
Yea, but that’s stupid. Who would choose death over life? What good is a choice if one of the choices is so incomparably stupid that it doesn’t even count as a choice?
Well, believe it or not, this is an extreme case of a decision, or choice that we make on a daily basis. Most of the time we make our decisions unconsciously, and mostly in line with decisions we’ve made before. We like what’s comfortable, so what we chose yesterday, is most likely what we chose today.
Think of the structure of the gunpoint choice. Choice number one is to remain hold on to your possessions at all cost, hold on to your ego of giving into a mad man, and accept the consequences. Because the consequences are so immediate, and so obvious, it is hard to not feel their weight. So most people would choose (hopefully you’ll never have to make this choice) choice number two, which is go give up your possessions, swallow your pride in hopes of holding that which has suddenly become more important, in the moment at least, than either of them.
But what if the choice isn’t so cut and dried? What if the negative implications of a choice aren’t so obvious, and aren’t so immediate? Everybody knows that smoking causes lung cancer, which in turn causes death, but still millions of people still make the choice to smoke a cigarette several times a day.
The short-term benefits outweigh the potential long-term detriments. For the smoker, the pleasure they get is more than the pain they will experience in the present when considering the long-term downsides.
Now, most people who don’t smoke can’t imagine how anybody could come to this conclusion. It is obvious that smoking causes lung cancer. It is obvious that smoking causes poor health. It is obvious that smoking causes bad breath. So why in the world would anybody choose to smoke?
What about other choices, like to eat ice cream instead of a bowl of oatmeal? Surely we are aware that ice cream is not as healthy as oatmeal, right? Here is where it gets interesting. The way we trick ourselves around this is by saying that “it’s only just this once.” Surely we aren’t planning one eating a bowl of ice cream every single night, right? By telling ourselves that “it’s only this once,” we allow ourselves to significantly minimize any negative feelings we might experience in the moment when considering any long-term downsides.
How many times have you heard a smoker say the say thing?
I’ll quit tomorrow.
This is my last one.
This is the last pack Iâ€™m ever going to buy.
After next week I’ll never smoke again.
What about the flip side. We can that by tricking ourselves, we can minimize any future negative consequences of our actions, and making the present moment more enjoyable, regardless of any objective evidence to the contrary.
What about doing something that we know will benefit us in the future, but we don’t do it because it causes negative emotions in the present?
Did you exercise today? Why not? Surely you are aware of the long-term benefits of exercise right? Well, the same mental trickery works here as well. Either in the form of excuses, (to minimize the present negative emotions) and in from of promises about the future.
I’m too busy today.
I have too much to do.
I have a bad hip/shoulder/leg.
I’ll start after the holidays.
I’m going to start next week.
The human brain is a fantastic machine that can use many forms of lightening speed shell games to hide reality from us. We minimize the potential negative outcome to better feel good now. We minimize the future benefits to better feel good now. When we have a gun pointed at our heads, when there is only NOW, all the mental trickery collapse into single choice.
Life, or death.
So what do you choose, life or death? When you decide to smoke, or yell at your husband, or eat a bowl of ice cream, or go to or avoid the gym, how are you tricking yourself? What are you doing to convince yourself that the future won’t be so bad if you keep doing what your doing? How can you convince yourself that you’ll start doing whatever it is you know you should be doing today, tomorrow?
Your life, all of it, is the cumulative result of all the choices you’ve made. If you are completely happy with your life, or completely disgusted, it’s all on you. People that are generally successful and happy realize this, and make changes along the way to improve their lot. Those that are generally unhappy refuse to accept this, and try their whole lives to find blame in somebody else, somebody outside themselves.
Kind of a heavy post to make, but one thing that you will always have and you should always use, is your choice. You can choose. No matter if you have a gun to your head, or a choice between the gym and the TV, you can choose.
So back to my story. My self-imposed restriction was that I wasn’t allowed to buy anything. Because then I’d have to carry it around with me all day after I made my way back to the station. And since it was only ten in the morning, that was too long to be carrying something that I bought on whim.
Unless I see something really cool, then all bets are off.