If you were to try to encapsulate, in one sentence, the biggest problem most of us face, it’s probably this:
We are hardwired to live a life that is very different from what we do every day.
We evolved to survive in the African savanna. But we work all day in front of computer screens in cubicles, and then we go home and stare at TV screens at home. Or some variation of this.
All of our instincts are fighting against us.
We were designed to adapt to danger and scarcity. But we live in relative security and abundance.
We are supposed to eat and drink everything we can fit in our stomachs, because one never knows when the next meal will come. We are supposed to rest and be lazy whenever we have a full belly and are not being chased by lions, because life is historically about starvation and being chased by lions.
As far as evolutionary strategies go, restraint, focus, and abstemiousness are newcomers to the list of virtues. And by the time our species selects for them, if it ever does, it’s unlikely that we will still be around to see the benefits.
This is why, for the first time in human history, a significant percentage of the world’s population has to concern itself with obesity, rather than starvation. We are supposed to eat everything we can. Now that we can afford to eat more than we need, we do.
Further, many of the neurological conditions we diagnose and use medication to treat today aren’t really impairments in an evolutionary sense, but rather, they are simply maladaptions from our evolutionary programming to our current environment. Perhaps most notably among these is ADHD (which I have been diagnosed with myself). Neither hyperactivity nor an inability to focus is an evolutionary disadvantage, but they make it difficult to survive in a cubicle or in a classroom environment (Personally, I have managed by avoiding traditional work and school environments most of my life – but it is worth noting that the one time in my life where I had a traditional job, I did rely on corrective medication).
If you feel there is something wrong with you because you aren’t satisfied to stare at a computer screen all day, it’s because there is. There’s something wrong with all of us. We weren’t designed to live like this. We were designed to live in nature, not in cubes. It’s like trying to put a cat on a leash. No amount of corrective medication, or non-corrective medication in the form of booze, coffee, or other drugs, can fix the problem completely.
The self-help genre and behavioral psychology field can be viewed as reactions to this dissonance.
If you find it’s hard to follow through on New Year’s resolutions or to maintain a diet or to stop drinking or to achieve any sort of goal, it’s because when you aim to achieve those things, you’re likely trying to force behavior on yourself that’s contrary to your programming.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t aim to avoid unhealthy behaviors. It’s just to say that the combination of our programming and our environment means that our default settings are unhealthy.
If we struggle, that’s understandable.
It’s also perhaps why the marshmallow test is so powerfully correlated with success today, but isn’t a universal trait of humanity. Restraint has only become valuable in recent times. If it had mattered as much to our ancestors’ survival a million years ago as it does today, we’d all pass the marshmallow test as five-year-olds today.
But instead, we have self-help books and we wonder why we have such a hard time doing what we purportedly want to do.
And that’s all I have to say about that.