A several-month venture in weight loss has led me to think that, while the case for willpower may once have been overstated, today the pendulum has swung, leading us to undervalue willpower.
Since January 1 I’ve lost 16 pounds; no, not the 160 pounds of some of those ads where the triumphant loser stretches out their old pants showing they now have room for another entire person in there with them. Not even 60 … 16. But still just about right, as my goal has been to lose 15-20.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the online ads touting weight loss through the use of “one simple old trick”? I’m not sure what “trick” they had in mind, but mine has been this: Drive less, walk or bicycle more. I understand not everyone has the time for that. But there are a number of places I go, the library, post office, cleaners, bank, and grocery store within a mile radius of home. So it has worked for me, and may for some others as well.
One of the peculiar things I notice about biking or walking around Seattle is that places often seem closer on foot or on bike than they do in a car. Odd that. But you discover that things aren’t, in so many instances, separated so much by distance as by traffic.
But truth to tell, my modest weight-loss campaign has benefited from more than just this “one simple trick.” For instance, when I began in January I took a month off from alcohol. I do enjoy a glass or two of wine at 5 p.m. or a beer with friends at a local pub. Subtracting that pleasant ritual, I found I did need to put something in its place. That was a half-hour evening stroll or a cup of herbal tea.
Then, a little mental jui-jitsu. I remind myself that it's up to me what I eat. Food doesn’t jump into my mouth on its own — however much it seems sometimes to do just that! Nor am I required to eat what I don’t choose to eat. I am in charge of what goes into my mouth and from there to the belly beyond. Certainly a simple thought, but one that has proven useful.
And a few other simple tricks: regular exercise (whether the walking or biking) or going, as I do, to the YMCA several days a week. This means doing it, exercise that is, when you feel like it as well as when you don’t — feel like it that is. In that respect, it is like prayer. Sometimes you feel like it and it seems wonderfully rich, as easy as breathing. Other times, you just plod through it. The point is to keep the routine, the pattern and the habit of it.
I have a sweet tooth so giving up desserts is a challenge. So I treat myself, every now and again, to a Jones Soda Company “Zilch,” which is wonderfully sweet but zilch in calories.
I also have cut down on snacks. At some point in this venture, I read Pamela Druckerman’s wonderful book on child-raising, Bringing Up Bébé. She notes that in France there is, by consensus, one snack a day, the gouter, at 4:30 p.m. And that’s it. When you start paying attention you notice that these days we Americans snack often, some would say constantly. Not only that but many of our snack foods are caloric disasters. I recently heard that the “cheese stick fries (with ranch dressing)” -- an appetizer -- at Outback Steakhouse is 2,900 calories a serving. Would you like a side of atherosclerosis with that?
A final learning from my little experiment in losing a few pounds: Having lost a bit of weight does not, alas, make a 60-year-old 30 again. No, you’re still 60, but there’s less of you. You are a bit more nimble. A bit more energetic. And your wardrobe is expanded because your waist has not. That is to say, there are some clothes you haven’t been able to wear that you can now wear again. New clothes at no cost. What could be better in recessionary times?
Are there any larger issues in something so prosaic and as much a societal obsession as weight loss? Two occur to me. One is that it's surely a terrible thing that so many of us in the USA are overweight, even obese, while so many others in the world haven’t enough to eat. Something wrong with that picture! We are perhaps materially rich but spiritually poor.
The other issue I have been pondering is the matter of willpower. In the age of addictions, as well as the medicalization of most everything (“it's a disease, not a character issue!”), willpower has taken a hit. We tend to discount willpower. Even the recent popular book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney seemed, oddly enough, to discourage those who would “rediscover” it. Baumeister and Tierney argued that will power was mostly about a person’s biology, specifically, having enough simple sugar glucose in your system to keep up your will power. Obviously if what you are trying to do is muster the will power to eat less and lose weight, maintaining a steady supply of sugar may be counter-productive!
But not everyone buys the biological basis theory of will power. Social psychologists Greg Walton and Carol Dweck, writing in The New York Times argue that willpower depends more on the direction of our thinking than on the flow of glucose. They write:
In research that we conducted with the psychologist Veronika Job, we confirmed that willpower can indeed be quite limited — but only if you believe it is. When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower. It turns out that willpower is in your head.
It strikes me that this is good news — and more empowering news — than reducing will power to “some have and some don’t,” or treating it as mainly a matter of your biology.
Moreover, it has far larger implications. When we talk ourselves out of the idea that we do have the power to make choices and will behaviors, we are ever more prey to the steady drumbeat of marketing messages (“You deserve a break today!”) as well as to bad personal habits. “There’s nothing I can do,” we protest, downing another donut.
It's empowering to believe you can make choices and follow through, even when facing difficulties. Of course, if we do believe we have such power, there’s a catch. It means we are responsible. The real reason we may be blowing off “willpower” is that it puts us on the hook.
So maybe my self-talk about what I eat being my call wasn’t silly after all,
Believing that you have power and can make choices and decisions goes against the grain of so much of the prevalent contemporarty malaise of powerlessness. But maybe we need to more often claim both our power and accept our responsibility? When we do, maybe we can even do something about that other issue of overeating here while so many are undernourished elsewhere.