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Make things tougher on yourself

Published January 02. 2012 05:03PM

Run 10k in 35 minutes. Ride 100 miles in 5 hours. Bench press 200 pounds 10 times. All three are excellent examples of superior physical health that really don't matter nearly as much unless they produce something else.

Peace of mind.

Yet far more of us focus on achieving any of the former instead of the latter. That's because we falsely believe that peace of mind is the byproduct of other accomplishments rather than an accomplishment itself.

Achieving peace of mind is a deceptively difficult task, sort of like standing on one leg: The longer you go, the harder it is to maintain your balance.

So in light of the New Year, here's a resolution worth considering: consciously make a facet or facets of your life tougher on yourself. It will not only battle what I see as one of the great ills of modern life, what psychologists call hedonic adaptation, but also provide some peace of mind.

This suggestion may seem counterintuitive and definitely countercultural. That's because every technological advancement in life is designed to make your life easier, and arguably it does.

Consider the advancements in the telephone in the last 50 years or so.

One of my first phone memories is of my mother putting down the receiver without placing her call because we had a party line, and the neighbors were already on it. Another early memory recalls my father placing a long-distance call and keeping it as brief as possible because the cost of even a few minutes of long distance was so high.

These phones used a rotary dial, the outmoded style of phone found in my home until the early 1990s.

And then, in what now seems to be a blink of the eye, technology advanced us from cordless phones to cell phones to cell phones that not only replace the need for direct conversation through texting but also replace, in essence, the need for televisions, camcorders, cameras, and computers.

Without a doubt, these advancements have created convenience, but has the convenience created peace of mind? Do you marvel and give thanks when you do something high tech like make a video with your cell phone?

Or do you now expect perfect performance and unleash expletives when you God forbid! have to wait temporarily for your cell to gain Internet access?

The problem, you see, is hedonic adaptation, our habit of acclimating to pleasure so quickly that we come to expect it. The phenomenon might be best explained when you receive a significant increase in salary.

After that initial feeling of gratitude or vindication you come to view the increase in salary as the status quo. More often than not, you raise your standard of living to parallel the increase in salary, and before you know it, you need or want more.

Yet a second increase in salary doesn't satisfy you; it just starts a new cycle. Once again you need or want more.

The only way out of this mindset is to consciously take a part or parts of your life where you force yourself to function with less. For health and fitness purposes, possibly the most beneficial area in which to apply this is diet.

Does the same amount of decadent food or drink satisfy you as in years before? Or do you find yourself eating or drinking a bit more?

If so, consider what would happen if you forced yourself to eat or drink less. My guess is that you'd enjoy the "less" more than the "more."

Not to mention the peace of mind that comes from actions that help rather than hurt your health.

This reminds me of a teaching colleague years ago who returned to school one year 30 pounds lighter. Impressed, I asked him what sorts of workouts he had been doing to achieve his new condition.

He told me that he hadn't made any changes to his workouts, but he did eliminate a bad food habit.

For years, he would relax at night by watching TV, eating potato chips, and drinking soda. Slowly, he had increased his consumption (don't forget the principle called hedonic adaptation) to the point where he was putting away a liter of sugary soda and a bag of chips a night.

When school ended last June, he decided no more soda or chips at night even though he enjoyed them immensely and wanted to consume them terribly.

But the loss of weight, he said, wasn't the best result of forcing such a hardship upon himself. Physically, he felt better than he had in years, and he had discovered a new appreciation for some foods he had previously dismissed as bland.

This story proof our natural inclination to increase indulgence is why I believe you should resolve to begin the New Year by forcing some sort of dietary hardship on yourself.

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