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Making Healthy Lifestyle Choices Can Be Hard, But It Can Also Make You Happier

Researchers say healthy habits are investments in long-term satisfaction.

Key points

  • Studies show that developing a long-term perspective toward healthy lifestyle habits can result in long-term happiness.
  • Some researchers describe two parts of the brain—one that indulges short-term gratification and one that plans for long-term satisfaction.
  • Delaying gratification helps you invest in your long-term health and happiness.
Werner Heiber/Pixabay, used with permission
Healthy eating is an investment in a happier future.
Source: Werner Heiber/Pixabay, used with permission

Grab a fast food cheeseburger or a sticky-sweet pastry and you will feel an immediate sense of satisfaction and pleasure. But that happiness is short-lived and, if repeatedly indulged, can contribute to a poor health profile later in life that’s bound to leave you feeling bad. But how would you feel if you didn’t stop for that burger and, instead, cooked a healthy meal from scratch, or picked up a prepared vegetable salad and perhaps a serving of grilled chicken from the deli?

Much research has looked into why some of us make healthier lifestyle choices than others. A review of relevant literature by British researchers from the Universities of Kent and Reading, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found that the ability to delay gratification leads to more overall life satisfaction through healthier lifestyle choices

These researchers compared the lifetime satisfaction of those who followed healthier diets, engaged in more physical activity, and were able to maintain a long-term perspective as to the benefits of these lifestyle choices to those who made more indulgent choices for immediate satisfaction. They also looked at the effects on life satisfaction of individual ability to delay gratification, as well as the impact of their locus of control, or the degree to which they felt in control of and responsible for their own lives.

Those who are able to delay gratification are better able to appreciate how healthier food and routine exercise are an investment in their long-term good health and well-being, the researchers point out, and how these choices are ultimately more satisfying than choosing the more immediate indulgence of eating fast foods and junk foods or living a more sedentary lifestyle. Even though the unhealthier choices are more immediately satisfying, they also contribute to poorer health outcomes as time goes by. The determining factor in your choices, the researchers say, is what drives you to make one choice over the other. Do you satisfy the sense of purpose you feel when you invest in your future health by eating well and getting enough exercise, or are you more likely to satisfy your present need for more immediate pleasures?

This work piggybacks on the work of other researchers, such as Lowenstein and Ruhm, scientists who developed a model in which decisions are shaped by two different parts of the brain. One part leads to more automatic consumption and the other to abstract thinking and planning. The first favors foods high in fat, sugar, carbohydrates and meat, and looks for immediate gratification. The second recognizes the value of eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and other healthy habits, and leads to delayed gratification. Other researchers, such as Thaler and Shefrin, developed the idea of a “long-term self” and a “short-term self.” The long-term self is the planner and the short-term self is the immediate consumer.

These theories also apply to exercise, the British researchers note, while reminding us that one definition of happiness is the absence of pain. While a strenuous workout may be painful in the short term, the long-term gain is generally an improvement in strength and well-being. In their review, they found that men are more likely than women to gain happiness from exercising; women, in turn, are more likely to gain more happiness from making healthier food choices. Key to either source of overall life satisfaction, however, is the ability to take control of one’s happiness and delay gratification for the sake of long-term health and well-being.

References

Gschwandtner A, Jewell S, Kambhampati. Lifestyle and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Delayed Gratification. Journal of Happiness Studies. August 20, 2021 23: 1043-1072 (2022)

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-021-00440-y

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