How to be healthy in a dopamine-seeking culture
Let’s start with a simple question: If you’re hungry, distracted, and in a hurry, and someone places two bowls in front of you, one of brown rice and baked potatoes, the other of peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish, which would you choose? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably choose candy.
It’s not your fault. The candy is designed – from flavor to texture to bright colors – to appeal to your brain far more than brown rice and potatoes. For more than 99% of our species’ history, we have lived in scarcity. So, dear reader, like me and everyone else, you have evolved to seek out high-reward, low-energy goods. This strategy has worked well for hundreds of thousands of years. But now, in modern times of plenty, it’s backfiring. Like so many things, what works, works until it bothers you.
The above analogy of brown rice and potatoes vs peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish is the one I used in my book, The practice of rooting, to discuss the challenge of choosing deep work and connection over superficial distraction and stimulation. But since the book came out late last year, I’ve realized the analogy goes way beyond that.
In many areas of our lives, things that aren’t as satisfying now tend to be more satisfying and leave us better off later. If living a good life in ancient times of scarcity was about seeking goods with quick rewards and lower effort, then living a good life in modern times of plenty is about seeking goods with slow rewards and higher effort. Scientists call this evolutionary lag – when strategies that were once adaptive to a species become harmful.
A 1995 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition assessed the diets of most people in developed countries. Lead researcher Susanna Holt concluded that “the findings therefore suggest that ‘modern’ Western diets that are based on highly palatable, low-fiber convenience foods are likely to be significantly less satiating than diets of the past. “. I suspect it has only gotten worse over the past 25 years. Today, many people focus on the culture of hustle, so-called optimization and short-term profits, leaving less time, energy and incentives to produce and consume more nutritious food. . And it’s no longer just food manufacturers and engineers who profit from our cabling, but also social media designers, cable news channels and even politicians. Cheap and superficial tubes of feel-good vibes are everywhere in our society.
Here are some examples of the trade-off between brown rice and potatoes versus peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish that most people face every day: junk food versus nutritious food; hard work versus distraction; scrolling through social media versus reading a book; porn versus intimate relationships; retweets and likes versus building a strong community; heavy drinking versus abstinence (or at least moderate drinking); speculative day-trading assets versus slow and steady investment in stable funds; immediate and cheap consumption of almost everything compared to life on a habitable planet.
What all of these examples have in common is that the former require less activation energy – the initial self-discipline and punch to start something – and feel good immediately but crap later. The latter require more work beforehand and do not feel good immediately but feel good in the future.
Once you become aware of the evolutionary shift, you start seeing it everywhere. Overcoming it is the key to being grounded in an increasingly frenetic and frenetic world.
The challenge is choosing the brown rice and potato business when it requires replacing basic biology that has evolved over millennia. This is compounded by the fact that Western economies are designed for short-term profit, not long-term achievement. As a result, we’re bombarded with products, services, and marketing aimed directly at the part of our brain that seeks immediate-reward products, services, and experiences. Consumerism feeds on evolutionary mismatch and traps us in a cycle of seeking superficial pleasures that have short half-lives. It may be good for the bottom line, but not for our health and happiness.
The big question, of course, is what can we do about it? How can we live a good, wholesome and wholesome life in the midst of so much bric-a-brac and sweets?
Just being aware of evolutionary mismatch is a good start. When you can identify and name something, it gives you some power over it. Then you can take inventory of your own work and life and start sorting activities into the bucket of brown rice and potatoes or the bucket of peanuts, M&Ms and Swedish fish. The goal is to devote more and more of your time and energy to more nourishing activities.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that momentary willpower is rarely, if ever, enough. Trying to choose brown rice over peanut M&Ms is especially difficult if you always have an open bag of peanut M&Ms in your pocket — and for many of us, a smartphone loaded with apps is just that. Rather than trying to overcome the evolutionary lag in the moment, it is better to anticipate it and avoid putting your brain in a position to consume the equivalent of a candy all day. The more you can design your environment to favor brown rice and potato activities, the better. (This is precisely why I don’t have any social media apps or internet on my phone. This simple change, while quite difficult at first, had a huge impact on my life.)
Unfortunately, choosing brown rice and potatoes over candy is even harder because evolution has also programmed us to experience fear of missing out (FOMO), especially in social situations.
Thousands of years ago, FOMO worked to our advantage, ensuring that we would always be in the know and never miss an opportunity to share a meal with our tribe or hear of hidden predators or predators. a nearby warring faction. Now, however, FOMO keeps us glued to our screens, addicted to news, relevance, retweets, and likes — which, when consumed heavily, have little (if any) marginal benefit and cause anxiety and commotion.
Fortunately, the brain is good at learning. Once we start devoting more time and energy to brown rice and potato activities, especially if we can get through the first month or so, we start to feel pretty good. This effect is compounded if we undertake the journey with others, perhaps agreeing as a group to limit social media consumption or organizing a group hike. That’s a big part of why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are so effective. The mix of feeling progressively good and socially supported—which contradicts FOMO—makes it easier to overcome the evolutionary mismatches around us. Just as doing shallow and superficial activities can create a vicious circle, doing deep and meaningful activities can create a virtuous one.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do it better in the column. He is the bestselling author of The Practice of Grounding: A Path to Success That Nurtures, Not Crushes, Your Soul and co-founder of The growth equation.