Making Healthy Choices

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By Mark Lundegren

Although we might not want to admit it, even to ourselves, whenever we make a new and healthier choice in our lives, it is often with a bit of a struggle at first. 

This can be true whether we are long accustomed to sedentary living or well on our way to creating healthy and remarkable lives.  Each new step we take toward added health can feel a little uphill at the beginning, and by this I mean like a certain amount of work and not just awkward in its newness.  Do you ever wonder why this is and what you can do to more easily overcome this feeling?

Once we achieve new levels of health, of course, it is often fairly easy to maintain our gains and new life patterns – to sustain our new choices.  I’ve observed that, after about a month of persistence with a healthier behavior, enough time to experience and validate its benefits, and perhaps to make room for it in our lives, the new behavior generally becomes assimilated and our overall behavior pattern steadies in a new equilibrium.

I should add that this second observation also appears to apply irrespective of where we are on the path of improving health.  Our health or personal gains, whatever they may be, almost always feel as if they are higher ground we have gained and now do not want to descend from. These two facts about our health seem related and important, and worth considering together.  Why should the identical health practices, after the initial struggle they so often give us, feel so stable and even comfortable once achieved?

In the case of experienced natural health practitioners, they enjoy the rewards of past health efforts and thus are often quite receptive to new changes and challenges.  But they also know all too well this asymmetry in our experience, first when beginning and then after achieving new levels of health and personal growth.  They know our recurring “dark before dawn” pattern from past successes and can use this memory to press on to higher states of health with more confidence and short-term motivation.  This greater personal commitment to growth and skill at change create more energetic and compounding positive cycles in their lives, and even new life.  In a sense, natural health practitioners use their health to become healthier.

Still, even this use of past success and memory of the need to “press on” implies work, an act of exerting force or expending energy against a resistance.  This resistance is one I would encourage you to look for and observe carefully in yourself.  It is an often ever-present and sometimes quite unhealthy tendency in us – the impulse or desire to do less, to busy ourselves with what is near and familiar to us, to be as we already are.  Because of these dynamics of resistance and overcoming, the practice of health enhancement is revealing about human choices, and our facing of options and change, more generally.  It is an opportunity for learning that has many applications, including and beyond the advancement of our health and well-being.

Health enhancement, and what we might call other personal investment decisions, are often not “downhill” in feeling, as if we are being helped along or pulled by gravity.  They often feel uphill, as if we are working or fighting or giving up something.  And we are – our time at least, and in real time.  But, as I will explain, there are ways to create a much greater sense of ease when we make healthy change, also in real time and our present and less healthy lives, feelings of effortlessness and being pulled along by a force, even as we really do move upward in our health and to higher levels of vitality in our lives.

At the same time, we should not forget that behavior which reduces our health, or seeks immediate comfort in our surroundings and familiar things, choices which disinvest in our health and future, quite often do feel downhill and quite easy. This downhill feeling of ease can be pleasurable and comforting, even as it works against us and our progression in our health and life.  Excessive comfort and momentary living can thereby lure the unaware or unwary into stagnating or declining life, and often with an ever increasing speed that really does imply the tug of a gravity of sorts.  Techniques to pull back from these feelings and recast them as unwelcomed and uncomfortable are quite critical too, for ourselves or others in our care, and will be included in our discussion

The Science of Our Decisions

Many classical twentieth century economists and decision scientists liked to think and speak of people as rational beings and our decisions and choices, unless obviously influenced or constrained, as the products of rational choice.  Given a set of facts, this approach proposes that people optimize their conditions and pursue their goals and interests as directly as they can, making calculated decisions and reasonable choices among their options.  Our information and foresight may be imperfect, but our choices and intentions are generally not, assuming we make no error of calculation.  In this classical approach, our thinking is viewed as fairly reliable, in the sense of being rational given what we know, and our reason is viewed as our dominant characteristic.

Viewing people in this way, whether ourselves or others, may sound odd in my summary, as if we are all mathematicians or machines of a sort, but this view is actually quite common, especially in our modern times where we are generally hurried and are also frequently taught to rely on rationalistic thinking.  It is shorthand and easy simplification we all may use, and often unconsciously, one that makes busy life easier to approach and not just formal decision models easier to construct. In truth, even though we often attribute this rationalistic operating model to others, simplifying them to calculating entities who weigh and choose among options, implicitly giving others clarity of thought and aim, we are also often quite hesitant to apply this description to ourselves, living in and amidst the reality of our own human experience and cognition (thinking, feeling, and uncertainty).

Our own introspection reveals that, while a rationalistic approach may be useful in getting through the day and building scientific models, the idea of rational choice is really never born out in the reality of our lives, which we know as we probe the lived reality of ourselves and other people.  We thus do ourselves and others a disservice by approaching the real world in this unreal way.  Often, we miss important facts in our interactions with others and make far less of these interactions than we might.  

In lived reality, all of us struggle to understand our aims and options, and often make impulsive and inexact calculations, or quite emotionally-charged or seemingly calculation-free choices.  And we act in this way much of the time, even in domains of life that have lifelong and life-altering consequences.  A prime example of this, from the realm of classical economics and decision science, is the consumption versus investment decisions we make each day with our income, though I might just as easily use relationship and career decision-making as examples too.

As you may know, sophisticated (i.e. hyper-rational) computer models, which can account for both investment and personal risks, generally choose much higher investment rates than ordinary people, even well-educated ordinary people, when programmed to seek maximum wealth through minimal work over our expected lifespan.  It is true that some of us make investment choices that are close those of to computers, revealing that fairly pristine rational choices are possible by people, especially in selected contexts or with advanced preparation.  But a great weight of evidence suggests that such rationality is usually the exception in forward-looking decisions and many others forms of choice. 

In our human lives, we are first unthinking entities, operating unconsciously and automatically, though this does not mean that intelligence and calculations are not imbedded in our natural unconscious processes.  Secondly, we are emotional entities, experiencing life, and generating feelings and patterns of understanding of greater or lesser scope from our subconscious, again often with imbedded intelligence but with varying precision.  We then, thirdly, attend to these feelings semi-consciously, paying attention to some feelings more than others and making intuitive or impulsive judgments regarding many of our feelings (again with varying intelligence and precision).  Only then are we, fourth, more conscious, self-conscious, and reasoning entities, calculating number and likely result for example, or systematically evaluating options in some other way.  In the many demands of waking life, we generally limit the use of conscious reasoning, and may use it principally and only periodically to assist us amidst our primary world of semi-conscious, spontaneous, and emotionally filtered aims and issues. 

To illustrate this description of our natural human cognition, take the simple example of crossing a street, leaving aside for now our motivation for this crossing.  As we approach the curb, scientific research has confirmed that our brains are already activated for the crossing, taking in cues and information from the environment before we reach the street.  These processes occur entirely or primarily below our consciousness.  Our first conscious process may be a general emotional feeling about the relative ease or danger of the crossing, perhaps a summoning of memory, which either may then lead to a formal categorization of the challenge with language (easy, dangerous, etc.). We then will almost always process again, by making a quick and often unthinking scan of the street and feel better, the same, or worse about our prospects, based on this second round of only semi-conscious information gathering. 

However, before we begin crossing the street, or very early in our crossing if the way is initially judged clear, we usually make a fourth and much more attentive and rational assessment of street conditions.  This assessment is often patient and can be quite protracted if there is an approaching vehicle and we must assess the time until its arrival at our location, or if there is some other danger or pressing consideration.  Only then, do we finally cross the street. But this act becomes increasingly unconscious and automatic as we cross the roadway.  Our attention turns elsewhere, to other emotional issues or subconscious aims, which is why we are often surprised and pulled back to our surroundings (or more rightly our surrounding pulled back to us) by sudden changes in road conditions before we reach the opposite curb.  This example portrays the nature of our daily experience and natural cognition, though we must recognize that many actions and decisions remain at the unconscious or emotional stages only, never invoking rational calculation.  Such is the subjective human environment from which all our decisions and choices are made, and from where all our downhill and uphill feelings of ease and bother occur, ones that so often influence our choices and lives.

The many limitations that rational-choice decision models have in describing people (and even groups and organizations of people) are now well known, even if these limitations are not always well-accounted for by contemporary economists and scientists in their work, let alone by ordinary people in their busy daily lives and varied relations with others.  To return to our earlier discussion of investment decisions, in truth, our rationality shares our brains with other processes and imperatives that make competing demands on our attention and affections.  We may well enjoy our work or fear retirement, as easy examples of emotional investment considerations, suggesting programming of an entirely different sort than the ones frequently used economists and policy-makers, and scientists and non-scientists alike. 

This laxness and reliance on outdated models, on the part of trained scientists and professionals especially, nicely and indelicately reinforces the idea of pervasive non-rational limitations in human choice, even the choices of seemingly exacting professionals and quite intelligent people.  Such scientists and professionals might and often do argue that their approach is conscious and rational, that their models work closely enough and the extra effort of investigating and addressing emotion and other dimensions of cognition, and then of building more complex and unfamiliar models, is not worth the investment and trouble.  But an increasing body of research suggests this is not so, that traditional rational decision-making models fail to adequately or efficiently describe, predict, and permit positive influence in many instances of real world human behavior and choice.  The intractability of these scientists, in a sense, reveals how personal history, context, and emotion so often deeply influence our choices and behaviors – how they may make change feel sharply uphill and perhaps illogically so, as more work and less or less certain benefit than change actually is.

In our daily lives, we often spend much of our time in conscious or semi-conscious struggles to achieve the emotional outcomes and subjective experiences we want.  We may know, perhaps intuitively, that more rational choices would help us achieve these outcomes and experiences, but cannot always act and decide rationally and as we might like to.  This is particularly true when our desired outcomes are emotionally charged, or when they take time and involve investments of time, as healthy choices and plans for our future well-being so often do.  Recognition of the many nuances, and rational and non-rational elements, in human decisions and human experience generally has a long history and occur throughout much of pre-modern literature and philosophy. 

Our modern, scientific return to the full richness of cognition and choice occurred beginning in the mid-twentieth century, in a fusing of psychology, biology, and other scientific fields that today together are called cognitive science, the formal study of human, animal, and now artificial intelligence.  Many have helped to shape this emerging discipline over the last fifty years or more.  One of the key early contributors in the field was the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, who built his ideas on the work of other psychologists, investigating intelligence and choice before him.

Studying organizational behavior and individual decision-making in the 1940s, Simon put forth the idea of “bounded rationality” as a way of better explaining and understanding intelligence and choice than the classical rationalistic thinking of many scientists in his time.  He initially meant this explanation or description with respects to humans specifically, but later realized it applied to intelligence more generally – and then went on to construct the first artificial intelligence programs in the 1950s.  Simon observed that our human rationality (and rationality generally) played a role in decision-making, but that it was always a subordinate or limited one.  Decisions, he observed, are always made and first put in a context. Choices are always set in what he called boundary conditions, conditions which are usually more important than and can easily overshadow calculation and acts of deciding in their influence on choice and behavior.  In other words, our own personal decisions are always within a frame, analogous to the frame of a picture, whether this frame is of our making or taken as given, and whether the frame is a conscious or unconscious one. 

Simon viewed the fact of boundary conditions as essential to understanding intelligence and decision-making, and later coined the term “satisficing” to describe the process and basic nature of choice.  Though often viewed as a pejorative and a bad habit to be avoided, Simon meant satisficing (satisfy + sufficing) to be descriptive, and inevitable.  He understood that the process of choice must always occur within consciously or unconsciously-imposed boundary conditions, which may be more or less arbitrary and optimal in their influence, but which are always present and physically necessary in one form or another.  Our decisions are and can never be never perfectly rational.  They are always made within frames and boundaries, whether these are physical, situational, emotional, or physiological.  Boundaries must be present whenever we decide – since the mere act of deciding stops analysis of options and consideration of additional alternatives.  In principle, it would take an infinite amount of time to consider all options, and none of us has that much time to spare, in both simple and complex choices and behaviors of all sorts.

Simon’s ground-breaking ideas have been greatly expanded and developed over the years, and cognitive scientists now see a rich set of factors that work to create boundaries around and frame our rationality and influence our aims and decisions.  Many of these factors are created through natural, cultural, and cognitive selection forces working on our species and selves.  This sometimes happens in very efficient and useful ways, but not always, as we will discuss.  The common boundary conditions which work to influence and explain much of our decision-making and choices include the workings and predispositions of our biological and neural systems, our psychological and developmental processes, our environmental and external reference points, and the relative appeal of thoughts and feelings to our bounded attention.  Thus, both our general human nature and cultural and individual conditioning form important frames around all of our feeling, reasoning, and choosing. 

Our personal boundary conditions also include time itself, and our physical inability to fully consider every available option in a finite amount of time.  We must always satisfice, and often do so within decision frames and boundary conditions we scarcely see or whose influence we do not appreciate.  While some of these frames really are imperceptible, other unconscious frames can be comprehended, either by subjective reflection or objective science.  Many of our most life-influencing personal frames, in fact, can be made conscious and revealed to us, and thereby at least partially controlled by us too.  This is an important point.  While we are bounded in our reasoning and choices, we all also have the potential for new awareness and more conscious choice too, underscoring the importance of learning and inquiry in our lives, throughout our lives.  The insight that we can examine and break important, life-limiting frames of perception forms the foundation of much of contemporary psychology and the new practice of personal mastery – the conscious improvement of our choices, health, and life generally.

If you are interested in making healthier and more optimal choices, or helping others to do this, modern cognitive science and psychology offer important insights to assist you.  For example, they can help us better understand why healthy new behaviors can be real work to adopt, but why these same behaviors are often relatively easy to maintain once adopted.  Contemporary psychology also offers tools and approaches to guard against and break negatively spiraling patterns of personal choice, and to make the process of choosing health, and other positive improvements in our lives, both easier and more reliable.

Healthy Choices In Nature

Before we discuss specific techniques for helping us and others make healthier choices, it is worthwhile to understand the natural mechanisms we are working to either utilize or overcome when we seek to become healthier or make more optimal personal choices of all kinds. 

As I mentioned, the pursuit of health often does feel as if we are fighting something within us, that we are fighting against resistance within us, instead of flowing with gravity or some other compelling and path-clearing force.  In a sense, this is true.  Pursuing natural health today, in the unnatural environment of our modern world, involves fighting or working around elements of our basic nature as humans, including key cognitive boundaries and biases that, ironically, nature placed within us to make us healthy. 

In our time, we also face complex and unprecedented cultural and individual forces that can compete with or work against our natural impulses toward well-being.  Our health today requires us to be more rational and discriminating with the emotions and impulses we attend and respond to, but this task is not easy and requires new learning and self-awareness.  Learning and awareness are of course both natural human capacities, but today are needed in new and exceptional degrees if we are to ensure our natural health and optimal development – amidst the powerful frames that are our own nature and our complex and potentially overwhelming modern environment.

To understand why and how this is the case, let us consider people living in nature, say 50,000 years ago, late in the long period after our descent from trees but still well before our very recent ascent into skyscrapers.  People of this time looked much like us today and had essentially identical brains to us, although in most other ways their lives were quite different than ours.  In this earlier natural setting of people, which extended back at least five million years, you may know that we lived and migrated on the land in small, tight-knit nomadic bands of perhaps 50-150 people.  We hunted and gathered, and interacted with the natural environment and other similarly-sized bands of people in our migrations.  We of this time made their living directly on the land, using important but still quite limited technology (fire, stones, spears, etc.), and had few possessions and no domesticated plants or animals.  We essentially took and subsisted on what nature provided us, or what we could provide for ourselves from the land and sea.  Humans of 50,000 years ago were also clever, communicative people, dominating other animals (including hunting very large animals at this point in our evolution) even as the general environment dominated us.  Based on studies of modern day hunter-gatherer people, our life was quite likely both hard and joyous, with the many ardors of life directly in nature offset with communal closeness, spontaneity and gregariousness in daily life, and a deep love and reverence for the world around us, hard and impersonal as it was at times. 

As important as the specific facts of this earlier natural life of humans, it is as important to understand that we were, and in many ways still are, evolved to live in exactly this way – and to be happy and content, able and efficient, living in just this way, since there were not any other immediate options for us.  Contrary to romantic ideals that arose after civilized and urbanized life, nature and natural selection imposed significant and far-reaching external limitations on the way we lived, and on the way we could live, as human animals hunting and gathering in the wild.  Most of the daily decisions we make and take for granted today, and often struggle with, were made for us then by nature, by our natural circumstances and the formidable external constraints of life in wild nature. We could live with our tribe or another perhaps, we could hunt in the morning or afternoon, we might fulfill one or another obligation to others around us – but live, hunt, and fulfill we did.  There was no other human life for us, no life outside of tribe and its needs and demands, no life outside of its requirements for health and survival, and our own.  How different our life is today, 50,000 years and roughly one percent of our human evolutionary history later.

Because of these many natural limitations, humans of 50,000 years ago had a much more physically demanding and constrained existence than humans do today.  They had much less personal power against the coercive and frequently potent forces of nature, and much less need and opportunity for life-cultivating choice and change.  Those decisions we did make in nature were often very basic: where and what to hunt or forage, with whom to mate, who to help or avoid, when to fight, and when to run.  We did not have the option of straying far from our tribe – let alone sampling life in many tribes or walking the earth in rustic isolation, in a way that we often can today – simply because of our individual impotence against large beasts of prey and the demands of nature generally.  Importantly, for our discussion, we made few decisions involving long periods of time or extended calculations.  Most of our life and choosing was of and near the moment, based on familiar patterns and involving similar considerations.  It was quite unlike our lives and many of our most important life choices today.

Understanding human evolutionary development and our natural human context is essential to appreciating our personal decision-making and health-related choices today.  Our human intelligence and cognitive processes were shaped by the natural environment, and a specific and fairly consistent evolutionary niche, for roughly five million years (and for many millions of years more as pre-humans and even pre-primates).  Intentionally and inadvertently, nature has endowed all of us with a distinct human nature and specific human capabilities, limitations, and biases – that were all functional or at least benign to our survival in nature, but that are often less than optimal and even suspect today.  Our natural cognition can produce resistance and barriers to our natural health and continued development, amidst our new human life in complex civilization. 

In particular, we were naturally shaped by our environment and niche to have a time horizon that is fairly short, especially when compared with what might be an objectively ideal time horizon in complex society, with its many options and personal investment decisions that affect our future.  We were also evolved to rely on natural personal and social emotions to produce our aims and inform many of decisions, since extended or sophisticated calculations were not required of us to survive, as they are today, while emotional and social harmony was.  Emotional alignment and the imperative of our feelings was an enormous dimension of our earlier life and cognition in nature, as it still is in our lives today and even as we try to overcome, cultivate, and control our natural emotions and impulses for more optimal life in advanced society.

Our physical and social environment has of course changed dramatically from 50,000 years ago – and even from 10,000, 1,000, and 100 years ago – but many aspects of our human psyche have not.  As society and technology have become more complex, and perhaps until our technology becomes self-creating and self-responding to our choices, we are now enormously pressured to be more rational and calculating in our lives than we were in nature, to be busy in and simplify our much more complex social environment, and to suppress and control the powerful natural emotions that underlie our reasoning and rationality.  Unfortunately, these natural emotions are an essential and inseparable part of us, and attending and truth to them is required for human life, health, and well-being in any full sense of these words. 

Our emotions, in fact, are the source of all of our contentment and joy, even today amidst so many material pleasures and distractions.  They are what make our life worth living and meaningful, or not.  Living without a close relationship and alliance to our natural emotions, in our modern aims and choices, usually makes life insipid and banal.  People can feel and live amidst an existential void, life without emotionally-engaging purpose and joy.  Misalignment with our emotions can also lead to reactive and unhealthy impulsiveness, to cynicism and antisocial behavior, and to life without awareness of our natural well-being, all engendering dangerous, downward spirals of choice and behavior.  As modern people, we may be able to complete vast calculations and have new insights into the physical world with our rationality, but without the natural human emotions of wonder, pride, and accomplishment, it is all to naught.  Without our human emotions, a coolness and inhumanness even envelopes us, and we and others are much poorer as people.  We can make ourselves and our world more efficient with our calculations, but can find few causes of action without our natural emotions, little motivation, little that makes sense of our life.

We thus cannot live without our natural emotions, even as we must be careful not to be ruled solely or indiscriminately by them, as I suggested before.  Optimal and healthy life involves a maturation and new awareness of our emotions, and a balancing and integration of them with our reason.  By this, I mean a more patient watching of our emotions and impulses, a cultivation of those emotions and aspects of ourselves we most value, and the use of our reason to fulfill these more consciously-selected values.  How we select emotions for cultivation and use reason in this way is of course deeply revealing about the self, since such choices of emotions involve our emotions and the process is thus seemingly circular.  Some of us never break this cycle, and may live amidst and respond incessantly to the full spectrum of our natural emotions and impulses, as they operate in modern times and amidst modern cultural influences. 

In truth, our self can move within us, from a place of high emotionality all the way to one of cool dispassionateness (and aimlessness), and to a more optimal and higher place between and even strangely apart from both our emotional and rational functions (and from our linguistic function too – a topic for another time).  As we mature and become more self-aware, many of us are able to choose and better attend to specific emotions of our choosing, emotions more valued by the reflective self and often ones that are more universal and selfless in nature, leading to what is rightly called the cultivated life.  This process of personal learning and maturation requires discrimination and choice among our emotions, which is a partly rational process of examination and partly an emotional process of attending to our emotions themselves – attending to and cultivating our conscience. 

People among us who develop personal mastery in this way often downplay the older and more animal emotions of fear and greed that are within us.  They live with and become better acquainted with the social emotions of pride and shame, including their optimal limits.  And they nurture our higher emotions, feelings that are more principled and self-transcendent goods in our lives and the world: empathy, kindness, and fair-mindedness.  We thus become less selfish as people as we mature and become more self-aware and conscientious, and yet are still a self and are always specifically ourselves.  This state of personal mastery has been valued for centuries as the hallmark and highest reaches of our humanity in civilization, as wisdom – as a selective, integrated, and self-conscious mix and refinement of our natural emotions and reasoning.  The result is personalities that are always highly individualized and often slightly piquant, once again revealing our nature as people.

Regardless of our level of cultivation, and the refinement and integration of our reason and emotion, we are all still bounded as beings and human beings.  Like vehicles stuck in too low a gear on an open road – gears we need to shift out of in our quest for health – all of us are constrained to varying degrees in our quest for growth and a better future life.  We are naturally constrained by our often too short time-horizon and other cognitive limitations that focus our attention one our surroundings and on emotionally-charged aspects of our lives, deliberately forged or accidentally acquired in our long ancient past in wild nature.  We need to live for and enjoy our days for emotional health, but if we only live for our days, in the now long and open-ended life that is our new environment, our future days may be far more limited, and less healthy and cultivated, than they might be.

We can see the effects of our natural time-horizon, uncultivated natural emotion and self-awareness, and limited integration of our reason – of our less than optimal original nature – operating in the complex and strongly acculturating civilization around us.  If you still question whether our nature, natural emotions, and cultural and individual influences place strong boundaries on our rationality and self-awareness, everyday and in each moment of our lives, simply pick up a newspaper or click on a news channel.  There you will see our naturally, culturally, and experientially bounded rationality and awareness, and our seemingly unbounded and often quite unrefined natural emotions, actively framed and at work: families struggling financially despite generations of work, men and women who have made or are unable to undo poor relationship choices, indifference to school and career opportunities, drug use, violent crime, corporate crime, senseless fear and gratuitous euphoria, pointless competition and rivalry, and so many life-limiting fixations and pre-occupations.  Any list of our less than optimal contemporary behaviors can be a long and varied one, and forms a partial map of our natural psyche at work in our unnatural new human environment, replete with its all-too-familiar and deeply creased contours and boundaries.

Fortunately, we all do have the ability to work around, or at least with, our human nature to make more optimal choices and decisions in our lives.  As I suggested, and as we will discuss, this process of healthier and more optimal choice involves finding ways to increase our self-awareness and understanding of the key life-limiting personal frames around us.  We each have the ability to see the hierarchy of emotions within us, achieve greater attentiveness to the feelings that give context and motivate to our thinking and behavior.  We then can replace unconscious and semi-conscious framing and scripting with more conscious and self-chosen approaches and frames, with more cultivated and emotions and integrated reasoning.  In this way, paths that lead to truly higher future ground, for us and others, can be recast to feel downhill, accelerating, and self-clearing, even easy, welcoming, and natural.  Our movements uphill can be reframed to be helped by the force of our emotions, seemingly the force and pull of gravity, but in reality an upwards push of new and informed perspective working on our natural human psyche.

All this is indeed work, always and especially at first when our health is weaker and our confidence is lower, and when we do not have memory of past health gains as an ally.  But this is also always work worthy of us and essential to our growth and personal mastery, and to health and higher life today.  In a very basic sense, our modern predicament is a struggle against ourselves in lower conditions of health and awareness, against our earlier and received individual nature and nurture.  It is our natural impulse and imperative to grow and live in nature, recast to seek health and growth in our own lives – in new and larger ways, in more open and chosen ways, and in and into the world around us. 

In truth, our natural impulse is to master the world, which in the maturing person, living in the fact of complex civilization, turns to include oneself and is transfigured to focus first on the mastery of ourselves.

Choosing Health Today

So far, we have explored some of the science and workings of our human psyche, and exposed two key modern-day idiosyncrasies of our natural human cognition and decision-making, when operating in complex civilization: 1) our naturally short time horizon, and 2) the strong and often inexact influence of our natural human emotions.  We have also discussed the naturally dependent character of our reason and awareness generally, how society today often unrealistically and inhumanely encourages or expects domination of our emotions, and how a third and more compelling path is possible – cultivating and integrating our emotions, awareness, and reasoning in a higher and far healthier form of human life.

Perhaps some of your own choices, especially regarding health enhancement and other types of personal investment, have become more transparent in our discussion.  Perhaps they have given new form to the modern dilemma we all face of naturally needing emotional awareness and fulfillment and of having to make way for increasing demands for clear reasoning too.  Perhaps you can also see ahead to how health and other decisions might be made more easily and optimally, with less effort and struggle, by being made more self-consciously and with the conscious and informed framing of our thinking and choices.

Like other decisions that lead to future consequences, our health choices usually involve balancing real and obvious costs, and the prospect of change today, against potential benefits in an uncertain tomorrow, and the option of inaction.  This may sound like a return to rationalistic thinking, but we must remember that our reasoning plays its part here and no more.  Our rational side is bounded, as Simon insightfully pointed out, first by our own circumstances and the context of our choosing, and then by our natural need and willingness to limit information before and as we decide.  Still, we do calculate and consider outcomes before we decide, usually though a combination of intuitions and reasoning, and even may implicitly (if sub-optimally in our modern context) weight costs and benefits in many of the emotions we experience.  Thus, our decision-making is often still much like it once was in wild nature, even as we now face choices that are far more numerous and complex.

As important and seemingly dominant as our reasoning is in both understanding our thinking and making better choices, we must remember that all our calculations are limited and heavily enmeshed in, and guided and framed by, our emotions and subconscious processes.  These boundaries include feelings and values that we often unconsciously and even arbitrarily place on our determinations of present costs and future benefits.  They include how we define and perceive the future, and our attitudes toward the future and toward our own future.  Our reason is also greatly and ultimately limited by our own identity – by our self, by how we are and see ourselves today, and by what we are willing and unwilling to immediately and eventually do within the bounds of our only slowly changing self and sense of self.  Here again, the importance of self-awareness and learning surface as our imperatives of health and personal mastery.

In our reasoning and attempts at reasonable choices, both our human nature, shaped by evolutionary forces, and our individual nature, shaped by our culture, upbringing, and ongoing experiences, cast their imprint on our calculations, even many decisions that seem obvious and cogent.  Equally true, however, is that we all can always look to and then learn from the specific boundaries and frames of thought and feeling that underlie our decisions.  We can step back and examine the context and perceptions expressed by the options we are considering and favoring.  And, we can look to the values and assumptions implicit in our own identity and sense of what is possible for us.  In short, we can choose to examine our choosing.  In this way, our own awareness is expanded, our biases made more evident, and the possibility of new and improved choices greatly increased – choices that result in what we really want, what we want as we and our biases and limitations are revealed to us, what we want as we grow and with new awareness of how we might grow.

To make clearer this process of exploring and learning from our thoughts and choices, and thereby raising our self-awareness and empowering improved choices, let’s consider a simple, time-oriented and health-related example of a choice we might literally make today.  Consider the decision to walk for an hour a day, perhaps in all but the worst weather.  Our rationality can accurately tally the key negative costs:  7 hours per week, 365 hours per year, certain equipment costs, possible low and higher-value activities they will be displaced, etc.  However, how we consider the flow of positive benefits, and how we subjectively and individually value and attend to them are much more complex and emotionally-charged.  For example, our long-term benefits may be viewed as uncertain and ambiguous as we consider this new walking regimen, and such ambiguity and uncertainty regarding benefits may dampen our emotions, and make us much less motivated and the choice more difficult. 

Perhaps our risk of heart disease and diabetes will be reduced in half from this change in our behavior, but can we be sure in our individual case?  It is true that we might obtain reliable statistics on the many benefits of daily walking, but few of us do this in reality, unless prodded to or made easy for us.  In the end, many of us also do not feel average and are apt to discount whatever statistical data is put before us.  Our emotional state is, in fact, far more important than any information we might encounter.  Two different people are even quite apt to perceive identical objective data differently, one positively and the other ambivalently or negatively, depending on their underling (and perhaps only semi-conscious) feelings regarding the decision.

If information or rational persuasion is to influence our decision to walk each day, it must be presented or we must perceive it in a compelling and motivating way.  Costs and benefits must start, not in the realm of calculation, but in our emotions and values – enlisting and engaging them, making the choice compelling and even-fear engendering.  Observing our natural brain in action in ourselves, we can see that information regarding benefits is best made visual and visceral, and any uncertainty regarding future benefits is best reduced, made more tangible, and brought into the present or near term if possible.  If the choice to walk or adopt some other healthy behavior is a sound one, then this process is not manipulative, it is merely a process of consciously recasting the choice in ways that are more motivating.  Ideally, we will do this for ourselves, through self-awareness and personal mastery.

As we observe the process of our choosing or trying to choose healthy behaviors over other competing behaviors, we can see and learn from our choices as they occur.  We learn that we really do often rely on short-term considerations, on feelings and intuitions, on our observations and advice of others, and especially on how we perceive a choice, whenever we make a decision to advance our health, as in our example to begin a one hour daily walking program.  Our decision may be influenced by statistics and calculations, and public health information we are exposed to or seek out.  But as likely, our choices are primarily driven by general and evolving feelings that we should change and adopt new behaviors, or by specific the appeal of benefits we want to enjoy or costs we want to avoid in the short run (for example, to get in shape or avoid negative perceptions of ourselves).  Equally, we see that we may be driven to change our behavior and daily patterns by feelings of the type of person we are or want to be. 

In truth, long-term benefits and statistics often only help us build or awaken initial emotional engagement, and later rationalize our healthy decisions, but are often not the principal reason nor are they ever the full basis of our choices.  Because of this, even when faced with strong data and arguments, we so often do not make optimal decisions.  Or we may hedge against other emotional commitments in our health decisions, through smaller initial commitments, and then probe our direct experience and impacts on our feelings and identity from these changes, as much as impacts on our health.  In our walking example, we might commit initially to a 30-minute program, and only on days when the weather is especially good, and to later consider if we should do more.  Our future consideration will then involve not just the effects on our body weight, stamina, and health prospects, but equally our feelings about the experience of walking, its immediate disruption in our lives and the consequences, and even how we strongly we identify with walkers and non-walkers when we walk.

Once new healthy behaviors are adopted, of course, this same semi-conscious, partly rational and mostly emotional human calculus explains why our established behaviors are apt to endure and promote still new healthy behaviors in our lives.  To return to our example of a 60-minute daily walking program, once we are achieving significant real-time benefits from this level of walking (via tangible gains in fitness and stamina, and perhaps an enjoyment of the aesthetic experiences that come with walking), the short-term benefits of stopping our walking (one hour more free time each) are often much more amorphous and thus much less compelling than the now known, already achieved, and emotionally engaging benefits of continuing our walks.  Our walking may even have become a new part of our identity and persona, perhaps formed a new outlet in our social life, and be increasingly inseparable from ourselves. 

We may be thus unwilling to give up our new and healthier pattern for competing demands on our time and attention – much in the way we stay with a well-known product brand – through the same emotional considerations that made our new behavior and choice so hard initially, and even for a time as more rational and beneficial options are presented to us.  Our natural barriers to change and investment now work in our favor, holding us at a new, now familiar, and healthier level.  At the same time, we have the added benefit of a new memory of healthy choice, experienced the process of change and a positive result, and can use this memory to help motivate additional changes.  This is true even if we may initially forget much of the experience of struggle and are again confronted with the immediacy of uphill feelings amidst the prospect of new changes, until such feelings are well remembered and become all-too-familiar.

The key lesson from this example and description of a typical contemporary health enhancement choice is that our own decision-making can be observed – preferably live and amidst choice, but in hindsight too – and our observations then used to make improved choices, and the undoing of old ones.  The idea of “bounded choice” is more complex than simply thinking of decisions as cost-benefit accounting, but this idea far better portrays experience and the role of reason in our decisions.  It opens us up to better understand the influence of perception and identity, and especially the fact of competing emotions and values within us, whenever we choose.  Bounded choice also explains why, and helps us observe and understand, that healthy behaviors can feel uphill when we first adopt them, tend to fluctuate with pressing demands in our lives or changes in the environment, but then so often persist once choices established and new context is created, even as new and perhaps more beneficial options present themselves. 

Our choices for greater health are always in context.  Any new behaviors must always crowd out old and familiar ones (even if it is lethargy), requiring force or energy of some kind and creating at least episodic disequilibrium in our lives and cognition.  And all our health decisions and options are framed emotionally and compete for our attention and motivation.  As we see this in ourselves, we can bring new awareness and force to our decision-making, examine and explore our often conflicting emotions, seek clarifying information where it is needed, and ultimately make more self-conscious and optimal choices.  Our opportunities for healthier choice also often involve mining past and current decisions to make and motivate better future ones, and this fact underscores why self-awareness, personal mastery, and health optimization are so deeply linked.

The example of daily walking underscores our potential and the need to better and more consciously frame heath choices to make them more appealing, to us and others, to make these choices easier and less uphill even as they are ascents.  To foster healthy personal investments of all sorts, we must first find ways to lower short-term costs and recast benefits into the near-term, making the choices more tangible and emotionally compelling, even as we seek to increase and lengthen consideration of future benefits.  We must also look to activate still deeper and more principled emotions – by framing healthy choices as integral to our current and desired identity, recasting health as a choice or series of choices we really want and need to make as people, even that we are eager to make. In these ways, we can build awareness of both our health and ourselves, iteratively clarifying and cultivating our emotional aims and the rational steps we must take to fulfill our evolving aims.

Specific techniques for fostering healthier and more self-conscious choices will be the focus of the next and final section of this exploration of human decision-making.  Before taking up these approaches, I want to address any lingering concerns you may have regarding our ability to reframe health choices, reliably and credibly, in more compelling and catalyzing ways.  You may well believe that healthy behaviors usually take considerable time or effort to produce their results, and that they generally do not have a “quick hit” profile waiting to be uncovered and used to motivate change. 

It would be wrong to pretend that some health activities are not like this, that some choices take great effort before benefits come, or really can only be seen primarily in future and rational terms (immunization being perhaps an example of this later case).  My experience, however, is that we can consciously and creatively reframe many or even most of our health choices to make them far more compelling to ourselves and others.  A remarkable and instructive example of this comes to us directly from my work with longtime natural health practitioners.

Successful natural health practitioners often live very different lives than average people today – in the foods they eat, in the regularity and intensity of their exercise, in their relationships with others, in the striking places and ways in which they may live, and frequently in particular how they think about their health.  We might be initially tempted to label them highly rational and forward-looking, which they may be in part.  More generally, however, one finds in extended discussions with these longtime practitioners that their healthy behavior and choices are very often viewed in far more immediate and personal terms than one might first expect, especially when compared with people just beginning to pursue a consciously healthy lifestyle. 

These experienced practitioners typically speak of their healthy behaviors as aligned with their personal values, with their expectations for themselves in daily life, and thus with their ongoing identity and sense of self.  Importantly, they very often both begin and end discussions of their choices and lifestyle with expressions of strong emotions about the quality of the daily life they enjoy, and link these daily benefits directly to their health practices.  For seasoned practitioners, the appeal and daily experience of their health choices is thus highly focused on and often completely reframed by values, identity, and short-term benefits.  References to the future (longevity and morbidity considerations, etc.) often come only as an afterthought.  In this sense, for the experienced natural health practitioner, health is almost universally no longer perceived or framed primarily as an investment for the future, or even as work or an effort, but as part of a continuing, pleasurable, and compelling form of daily life.  Natural health is creatively reframed – made natural for our natural mind – and the approach serves as an important lesson for all people seeking healthier and higher life.

If we can tap into and sustain this emotion and sense of immediate benefit, and drawn new identity from and re-create daily life through our health activities, even as we think of healthy behaviors as good long-term investments, we are far more likely to continue and even accelerate in our steps toward improved health.  This increased likelihood comes from re-framing this progression as engaging, valuable, motivating, and downward feeling, even as it is upward moving and requiring time and energy.  This is the common practice and experience of successful long-term natural health practitioners, who move health into the present and integrate it with their identity and daily life. 

They of course continue to face new challenges and choices for added heath, personal development, and changes, but with the memory and benefits of past health-directed choices, and a strong awareness of the natural emotional landscape we must all traverse to some degree with each new choice.  Many practitioners recall of their early efforts and struggles at healthier life with amusement and offer personal anecdotes, and importantly, often speak of a transitional phase in their practice, after which their health and development choices became easier and more natural – which you now know means that their choices where successfully and permanently reframed in their emotions and cognition.

This last point underscores the importance, as we work toward healthier life, of attending to and using the work and struggle we do experience when establishing new and healthier patterns as learning and self-awareness building opportunities.  Such learning from our thoughts and actions can make our health steps more far more conscious and immediately more confident, and is very useful to us in the long-term, eventually making choice and change much easier as we have discussed, even as our choices and steps become much larger. 

In truth, extraordinary breakthroughs in our health and life are always possible, if we can find compelling new perspectives on them.  With consciously healthier and more open personal frames, we harness and sustain the force of self-cultivation and internal motivation, better integrate our emotions and reason, learn to observe and reduce our impulsiveness, and use past memory of successful change to propel us into a future of welcomed and perhaps continuous change.  In this process, we chose a third way – not natural in a backward-looking sense, nor artificial and inhumane as is the tendency of our time and settled life before our time, but natural in a new, evolved, and more advanced and compelling approach to human life.

Tools For Healthier Choices

From our extended discussion of choice, perhaps it will not be too surprising when I say that choosing natural health and well-being, in the unnatural and often unhealthy environment of modern society, is often possible only through decidedly modern and less than traditionally natural approaches.  The tools I will describe come from modern personal development psychology, and can help us become more aware of and actively reframe our perspective on potential health choices.  They can help us consciously examine and then alter our often unconscious basic nature, received nurture, and force of our ongoing experiences – to see and change our underlying and often unseen frames and personal narratives.  These tools can help us better manage our time to create space for change, and to re-weight our time horizon and find benefits of change in real time.  And they can help clarify and motivate us toward what we really want, especially what we want as we become more aware of ourselves and grow as people.

It is worth pointing out that many of these things often happen to some degree through experience and maturation, recognizing that these last two things are not always perfectly correlated.  The process of gaining life experience includes becoming more aware and discriminating – by living with past decisions and better understanding their force, and the tangible reality of time – and naturally teaches us to extend our time horizon.  Experience, of its own nature, helps us better understand ourselves and see our frames.  It reveals our emotions and their hierarchy, through life in times of tranquility and stress, and naturally improves our intelligence and decision-making.  If you casually compare the time horizon, self-consciousness, and self-management skills of the small children, teenagers, young adults, and middle-aged and older adults you know, for example, I suspect you will see a clear positive progression (no doubt with some exceptions).

But why wait for wisdom of age, when we can have a better life beginning today?  Why not cultivate our health and improve our quality of life, now?  At any age, we all must now contend with millions of years of natural selection and the more recent forces of cultural selection and life in complex society, all often much stronger influences than we realize, even in elderhood.  We all begin our days with a human nature that is out of its natural element, that so often wants to live day-to-day and week-to-week, and even moment-to-moment when we experience intense emotions and stress.  Our cultural patterns of nurture may someday help us with personal mastery, but today are still crude, self-serving, misinformed, and frequently far from optimal.  A third path is both needed and possible, and leads us to consider new tools for improved self-awareness and self-management, to help us begin and continue ahead in this new path. 

What follows are selected tools to consider, for yourself and in work helping others to improve their choices toward greater health.  Included are short descriptions of how and why each tool works, though by now you should be able to understand their general impacts on our cognition (and all important natural emotions and time-horizon):

·         Information – gathering information about our health and other potential personal investments is a basic way of expanding our perspective and the boundary conditions that frame our decisions.  Since we may often make important decisions on uninformed emotion and direct observation, cultivating the habit of looking more broadly before we leap is important to improve our success in life generally.  Information both educates us and, if presented compellingly, builds emotional interest in change.  Some information can even begin to change our identity and values – most of us have read a life-changing or mind-altering book at some point, for example.  Sources of health information include periodicals, books, websites, and even classes, but do be cautious about all sources of information as there is a great deal of misinformation in circulation, whether regarding our health or other areas.

·         Goal Setting – in addition to information gathering, setting goals is one of the most effective tools for expanding our time horizon, clarifying and making explicit our deeper emotional aims and values, exploring alternative identities, and helping us make more optimal, healthier, and heartfelt decisions over time.  Goal setting can be as simple as resolutions or, preferably, can be more sophisticated processes of setting short-, mid- and long-term objectives for our health and other key areas of our life.  Goals are best when set and reviewed periodically, allowing for learning, refinement, and emotional re-engagement.  Goals should also always be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound.  Ideally, we should have such compelling and consciously-chosen goals in each of the important dimensions of our life.

·         Time Analysis – related to the process of conscious goal setting is time analysis and time management, a technique popularized by Steven Covey and his seven habits.  Time analysis can illuminate unconscious frames and personal biases, forces us to clarify what we most value.  Time analysis is of course just what its name implies: recording or mapping how we spend our time, often in 15-minute increments, over one or more days.  Time analysis often provides unexpected insights into the high and low value ways we spend or invest our time against what we intent.  This process can liberate time in our lives for new choices, and foster much more optimal time allocation and decision-making when practiced seriously.  Like goal setting, time analysis is best done periodically, to examine and clarify what we want emotionally, and to see how well or rationally we are pursuing our wants and living in alignment with our values.

·         Thirty-Day Tests – an effective tool for people at all stages of health development is the use of thirty-day tests.  Thirty-day tests involve either selecting a health reducing behavior and living without it for thirty days, or selecting and living with a new health enhancing behavior for the same amount of time.  Thirty-day tests allow for a bit of cost containment, hedging, and exploration, since we are making or framing the commitment as a test or trial, instead of a more emotionally-complex lifelong commitment.  With small investments or commitments of our time, we get rapid feedback and learning, and often build emotional engagement and make changes stick when we might otherwise not attempt them.  When put together into a series of challenges, tests help us stair step and can produce remarkable shifts in our health and life in a short time.  Thirty-day tests are great for both people who feel overwhelmed by their need for large and long-term changes, and for those of us who need fine-tuning of a generally healthy lifestyle or who want to explore new choices amidst healthy life.

·         Reward Programs – another practical tool for raising our self-awareness, engaging our emotions, and creating increased short-term benefits to counter the immediate costs of change and new choices is to create a reward program.  Ideally, these would be healthy rewards – spa treatments, outings, trips, home improvements, and classes are examples – made after achieving a specific health goal (and perhaps financed by an eliminated behavior that is costly both to our health and wallet).  Rewards are best when they lead to new self-awareness and internal motivation, since on their own they involve only extrinsic motivation.  They thus may not directly shape our identity, emotions, and values in the new ways we want.  Ultimately, healthy life can and should become its own reward, as our discussion of experienced practitioners highlighted, but short-term incentives can help to focus our energy and get us over early humps in our steps to become healthier and more self-aware.

·         External Constraints – a very important, if more significant tool to foster improved decisions and an implicitly longer time horizon is environmental change.  As we have discussed, in nature our health was maintained by important external constraints in our physical environment, food supply, and range of life options, and this lesson should not be forgotten.  By our nature, we are highly influenced and bounded by cultural influences and our immediate environment, often more than we realize.  If you are having trouble making healthier choices, it may be worth altering the environment and physical context you are in for increased health.  This may be as simple as emptying your kitchen of unhealthy foods or it may involve a more fundamental restructuring of your surroundings to foster healthier patterns.  We need to make health both easier and more engaging, in real time and over time, and sometime this involves changing the place and space we are in.

·         Progressivity – a final tool we will consider is the idea or strategy of progressivity in your approach to health and other forms of personal investment.  Experienced natural health practitioners usually talk about their past progress as a series of small, self-reinforcing steps toward health and personal mastery, with learning and setbacks along the way, rather than as a dramatic leap made seamlessly or at once.  Building our health over time, and realizing successes and positive feedback along the way, is a critical approach to foster much better long-term decision and to permanently reframe health more positively in your life.  Progressivity helps us manage the short-term costs and disequilibrium, the emotional competition, that healthier new choices and behaviors always involve – even with their future benefits and unforeseen immediate benefits, and even as we know in some part of our emotions that they are the right thing to do.

Balancing Today & Tomorrow

Understanding the science of decisions and our experience in making choices can open new perspectives on ourselves and our health, including the choices we are making (or failing to make) to advance our well-being and growth today.  In particular, through new awareness and self-awareness, we can better appreciate why health practices can be difficult to begin but easier to maintain, the rich interplay of emotion and calculation within us when confronting choice, and our natural bias to enjoy and preserve life in the present.  We even can discover for ourselves a new way to consciously reframe or adjust our perspective for better and healthier decisions and life over time.

People who achieve new levels of health, at all stages of health enhancement, routinely report a higher impact from and great satisfaction with the changes they have made than they initially thought likely.  It is with this viewpoint in mind that our health decisions should and generally must be made (for all but the most rational of us).  Progressive health programs that encourage gradual, but steady and self-reinforcing health steps, as well as regular emotional re-engagement and awareness building, are most apt to circumvent or enlist our often myopic human nature, and produce lasting and even remarkable health enhancement.  Like small investments allowed to compound over time, the results and impacts of incremental and iterative health programs can add up, while being welcomed and a source of satisfaction in daily life, producing dramatic and transformative health improvements, and often far faster than our calculations had estimated.

In addition to progressivity, regular goal-setting and reward programs can also help to foster better-managed time horizons and deeper emotional commitment, and greater self-awareness, leading to easier and healthier decisions.  Time analysis is another important tool to increase our self-awareness and see key opportunities for compelling and “low-cost” changes in how we spend our time.  Finally, it is important not to overlook the importance of our personal environment – both the physical opportunities and limitations it provides and the emotions and feelings it engenders – and to actively and consciously shape the settings and places  we live in and that influence all our daily thoughts, feelings, and choices. 

Together, new health and improved choices are possible, cultivating the “third way” I spoke of and leading to new life, for you and the people you care for and influence.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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