As we emerge from the July 4th holiday (without fireworks!) and step into an uncertain summer, I started to think about “independence day” and the idea of “independence” on a more personal level. And a couple of questions came to mind: How do we become independent in our own lives? How can we reshape our choices to reflect the kind of health and purpose that we want?
Dependent living means relying on other, external forces to drive our choices and actions. Eventually those choices and actions become hard-wired and habitual, and come to define who we are. We are made up of habits, and all habits, even the ones that are not exactly healthy, come from someplace. Labeling our habits bad or good is beside the point. There’s a deeper reason for every choice we make.
What if I like eating ice cream at midnight, for example? Like any behavior, this one has roots. Maybe I am seeking comfort in the ice cream from a long day, maybe I’ve worked out some sort of internal reward system because I worked out hard, maybe it’s self-sabotage. Or maybe I just love ice cream that much. This is what we might call a dependent behavior—one that is basically reactive, caused by other factors.
Is eating ice cream at midnight wrong? No…But is it an independent, conscious choice? Does it enhance my feelings of health and well-being? Again, probably no! Like all repeated behaviors, this one becomes hard-wired over time. And we become dependent on those hard-wired behaviors.
Habits are hardwired for a really good reason. Researchers who study the brain-body connection describe these patterns of behavior as tracks—like tracks that skis make in snow. Once you’ve repeated a behavior a couple of times (or a couple hundred times) it becomes harder and harder to alter that behavior. Your skis are stuck in the grooves of the tracks you’ve made.
There’s nothing wrong with this! That’s what your brain is designed to do. What if you had to re-learn a language every time you wanted to speak? What if a child had to re-learn to walk every time they stood up? We’re designed to get better at any behavior we repeat. Those behaviors eventually get downloaded to a different, more “automatic” part of your brain, which then makes you more efficient.
It is here that we can start to unpack our behaviors, choose different tracks and make truly independent choices. The first step is awareness. Bring the behavior back into the light of your frontal, critical brain and look at it. Did I choose this? Do I want this? An independent choice has to be a yes to both questions.
Another critical (and perhaps unexpected) element in independence is emotion. All great artists, great athletes and great professionals bring a sense of passion to their work. In other words, good decision making is not enough. Passion, exhilaration, joy: whatever word you want to use, positive emotion is the glue that makes great habits stick.
Most of us have experienced at one point or another the exhilaration of a great workout, for example. Bring that exhilaration to every workout and you are going to want to repeat that experience. Now, overwhelming joy may not be the first thing you feel when you look at your kale salad, but it is the sense of wellness, about how your body feels after eating something truly healthy and nutrient rich, that matters. Linking positive emotions to your best choices is one of the big keys to unlocking the door of independent, fulfilling health.
If you have any further questions about re-setting your habits, or about health in general, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!