A few weeks ago my wife and I were making lasagna for dinner. The sun was setting, a good playlist was on the speakers, and the kitchen was filled with the aroma of fresh basil and Italian herbs. I thought to myself, “A glass of wine would hit the spot right now.”
The problem is, I’ve been trying to lay off the vino and get trim after a couple of indulgent weeks. I had been pretty good and was seeing results. Was a glass of wine really called for?
I thought about it for a minute, and made the call to uncork a bottle.
It was a good decision. The wine, the music, the aromas, the fun of cooking and being together, it all came together to become more than the sum of the parts. The fact that I can still remember the fine details weeks later is a testament to how rewarding it was. Having a glass of wine might not have been the best thing for my body fat, but it was good for the soul.
The next evening rolled around, and now I was in a tight spot. There was still a mostly full bottle of wine from the night before. And more bothersome than that, my brain was saying, “Hey, that vino really hit the spot… why not go for it again?” The issue was I wasn’t making fresh lasagna with great music and my spouse. In fact, I was alone, eating a sandwich.
There are times in life where food and drink can elevate a great moment to the sublime. This doesn’t just mean fine dining, it could be a hotdog at the ballpark, or your grandmother’s pie recipe that brings back special childhood memories. I would argue that these culinary life-moments are worth the few grams of body fat they add. In fact, they’re worth their weight in gold.
The trouble is the brain wants nothing more than to activate its pleasure centers, and when it finds something that hits the spot, it drives you to repeat the actions that got you there. The brain will tug at you to recreate the moment, be it a song you’ve got on repeat, a mobile game that’s got its hooks in you, or a food or drink that uniquely satisfied.
You intellectually know that going back to the pleasure trigger results in diminished returns. The song gets old, the game gets boring, and the food or drink that made a magic moment yesterday is just ~ ok ~ on day 2. But if you’re not listening to your smarter, executive mind, you’ll go ahead and repeat the task anyway. After all, a little pleasure is better than none at all, right?
Think of your habits like fine thread. Each time you repeat an action, you add another thread the the line, making it thicker and harder to break. Repeat an action for years and the thread will be like a thick rope. These strong habits start from small moments of pleasure that your brain tries to recreate again and again. Once the habit has matured, you don’t even know why you’re doing it anymore. The pleasure is all but gone, replaced by discomfort and pain when you try to deviate from the pattern.
Your brain is a pattern seeking, pattern fulfilling machine. This can get you into trouble, but it can also be your salvation. With practice (and articles like this that shed light on the subject), you can start to recognize the patterns in your own pattern-seeking! When you feel your brain tugging at you to re-seek a pleasure experience, you can say,
“Ah, there you are. I figured after that glass of wine last night you’d want more. But last night was perfect just the way it was. Let’s not try and chase it down and ruin things ok?”
Knowing yourself is what gets you through these situations.
First, you need to know yourself well enough to identify when a food or drink will heighten an experience so much that it’s worth it. If you’ve got this dialed in right it should only happen a few times a month. Anymore than that and you’re rationalizing poor choices, to your body’s detriment.
Second, you need to know yourself well enough to smile and forgive your brain when it starts to spin up a new habit pattern. It’s a good brain just doing what brains do. It’s trying to make you happy. But chasing pleasure again and again brings just the opposite.
A famous tenant of addiction treatment is the prayer for serenity. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I humbly submit an updated version for all of us trying to stay healthy in this tempting world.
“Brain, grant me the serenity to enjoy moments of pleasure when they happen, courage to not try and recreate them when they’re gone, and the self-knowledge to know which is which.”
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder