The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

A Key to Good Habits? Don’t Allow Ourselves to Feel Deprived

Feeling deprived means that we’ll feel justified...


cookiejarspilling
A few days ago, I read Gretchen Reynolds’s piece in the New York TimesLosing weight may require some serious fun, about a study that makes a point that I think is incredibly important.

In the study, women were sent to walk a one-mile course in the next half hour, with lunch to follow.

–Half were told that their walk was meant to beexercise, and they should think of it that way, and monitor their exertion as they walked.

–Half were told that the walk would be for pleasure; they’d listen to music through headphones and rate the sound quality, but they should mostly enjoy themselves.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Afterward, they were asked to estimate mileage, mood, and calorie expenditure.

The “exercise” group reported feeling more tired and grumpy — and at lunch afterwards, they ate significantly more sweets than the “for fun” group. (The piece discusses other studies that show the same kind of result.)

Reading this study reminded me of one of my important conclusions about habits: If we want to stick to our good habits, we should try very hard never to allow ourselves to feel deprived.

When we feel deprived, we try to make things right for ourselves. We begin to say things like “I’ve earned this,” “I deserve this,” “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this,” “I’ll just do this now, that’s fair, but tomorrow I’ll be good.”

Feeling deprived means that we’ll feel justified in invoking many of the most pernicious loopholes: the Moral Licensing loophole, the Tomorrow loophole, and the Fake Self-Actualization loophole.

The lure of loopholes is why the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is so important.

Once I realized how dangerous it was to allow ourselves to feel deprived, I grasped the importance of the Strategy of Treats. It’s a delightful strategy, yes, but it’s not frivolous or selfish.

Treats help us to feel energized, restored, and light-hearted. Without them, we can start to feel resentful, depleted, and irritable. When we give ourselves plenty of healthy treats, we don’t feel deprived. And when we don’t feel deprived, we don’t feel entitled to break our good habits. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: When we give more to ourselves, we can expect more from ourselves.

And when we can frame a habit as fun, that’s useful too. This year, I started walking once a week with a friend. It started as a way to get more exercise, but now I view it as a way to get more friend time. Now that same habit is a treat.

In my forthcoming book about habit-formation, I talk a lot about how to avoid feelings of deprivation. There’s the Strategy of Abstaining, of course, for my fellow Abstainers; there’s “consumption snobbery,” that works too; there’s delay, within the Strategy of Distraction.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, Gretchen, I can’t wait to read your book which sounds so fascinating and helpful,” fear not, you can sign up here to find out as soon as it goes on sale.

How about you? Do you find that deprivation makes you feel justified in indulging or breaking a good habit?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here. You can ignore that RSS business.

Also ...

  • If you'd like a copy of my patron saints, email me here. Of you'd like to get a copy of myHappiness Paradoxes, or the Resolutions Chart, or the book-group discussion guides, or the Top Tips sheetsemail me your request, and I'll send it right out.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

more...

Subscribe to The Happiness Project

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?