I’m reading a fascinating book by Timothy D. Wilson called Redirect — the Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. In it, he discusses what makes us happy. What is scientifically proven to make us happy, and the results of the studies to date are illuminating.
For example, one might think that a devastating medical diagnosis would make people unhappy, and one would be right — at first. For the first few months following a life-changing diagnosis, people are more depressed and anxious than they were. But if the diagnosis is clear, within a year most people return to their emotional baseline.
The case discussed in the book is people who might be carrying the genes for Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative illness that kills people in middle age. If you have the gene, you will get the disease. If not, no worries. A study was designed to follow different cohorts of people — people tested in their 20s and 30s for the gene and found to have it or not. The results were referenced above — the group told that they have a mid-life death sentence suffered for a time, then found a way to rationalize and understand their illness, and returned to normal psychological functioning. Perhaps some of them were spurred to do things they had put off, knowing that their time on Earth was going to be particularly limited.
The really interesting thing, though, is that a third group was followed — those who might be carrying the gene but who chose not to get tested. These people suffered the most. Their depression and anxiety grew over time, and at one year they were faring the worst.
Think about that for a moment — someone with a 50% chance of dying of an illness is feeling much worse than a person with a 100% chance of dying of the same disease.
What’s can account for this strange state of affairs? In a word, uncertainty.
Uncertainty kills. It’s much more stressful than certainty, even if the thing one is certain about is one’s own mortality. Bringing this back to my favorite topic, I do think this resonates with weight control. Many people’s pursuit of weight control and fitness are plagued by uncertainty — diets started in a halfhearted way, leading to waffling between strict adherence and indulgence. Gym memberships established on a whim, without a plan, used inconsistently resulting in frustration, self-recrimination, etc.
Most people have mixed feelings regarding changing behavior and losing weight. The ones who succeed are able to resolve the uncertainty and make a plan of action. A plan that is simple, direct and aligns with their values.