Wellness has an enemy, and despite what you may have been told, it’s not Beelzebub—it’s you. And me. It’s all of us. When it comes to wellness, we are often our own greatest adversaries.
But don’t get down on yourself because it isn’t really your fault. The fault lies in your subconscious—or rather in the way your brain has evolved to divvy up responsibilities between your conscious awareness and your subconscious.
First, let’s recap some of the more staggering evidence that you are the enemy of your wellness. Then we’ll explore how your brain gets you into this mess, and we’ll introduce some of the new research and technologies that are making it easier for you to get out.
We already know that poor choices in what you eat and how often you get exercise has led to a staggering rise in obesity—and all of the health risks and costs that come along with being overweight. But beyond that oversaturated story, we are learning that even something as widely consumed as sugar may have dramatic effects on our wellness—regardless of our weight.
Now that you’re sufficiently freaked out, let’s talk about your brain. The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. There are more connections in your brain than there are atoms in the universe. And all of that magnificent processing power runs on approximately 20 watts of electricity.
Compare that to the 85,000 watts required to run a super computer and you get a sense of just how remarkable your brain is. One of the most important ways your brain conserves power is to automate as much of your behavior as possible by shifting it into your subconscious. It takes a lot of energy to make a conscious decision—to sort through all of the options and make a choice. It takes very little energy to follow a preprogrammed script.
Here’s a good example: Have you ever gotten in your car with the intention of going someplace, then you zoned out and realized that you have driven somewhere else? Driving is a decision-intensive activity. You have to take in a lot of sensory data and make a lot of choices. How much gas, when to break, where to turn—but almost all of us can make these decisions while thinking about something completely unrelated, because these behaviors have become automated and are handled by our subconscious.
Wellness behaviors are handled the same way. What you eat. When you exercise. How you handle stress. All of these behaviors are largely automated, and once they are programmed into your subconscious, it’s ridiculously hard to reprogram them. It requires persistence, effort and repeated failure. It requires willpower.
Luckily, we live in an era where we are not just becoming aware of how our automated behaviors are sabotaging our personal wellness, we have new technologies and insights to help us be more successful at reprogramming ourselves. 3 of the big ones are:
Willpower. We now know from a number of experiments that willpower is a real thing, and it gets stronger with training and it has a finite amount of strength—meaning every conscious decision you make will make the next choice harder.
Social influence. Lots of research has begun to unearth how the people around you influence your programmed behaviors—often without you even knowing it is happening. This has big consequences for the role of social media in health and wellness.
Feedback loops. The proliferation of devices that measure our behavior, and the use of data visualization to reflect that behavior back at us in totally new ways, have rapidly accelerated our ability to deliberately reprogram our behaviors.
In other words, they provide us with socially enabled feedback loops that can strengthen our willpower. Putting the power of our well-being in the palm of our very own hands—while simultaneously denying us the excuse of blaming our failure to meet our goals on someone else.