Sunday, September 8, 2013

Breaking Addictions

A recent addition to my list of ways I want to live in the future (the "visioning exercise") is having and using the ability to perceive and avoid activities that are unhealthy for me, or through my action, others; especially those activities maintained by addiction.

One clearly unhealthy activity is eating foods that taste good but have little or no nutritive value and contain substances that make us ill. Basically, anything that is sold in a package that can last more than couple of weeks probably fits in that category. Complicating the food situation are allergies, which would affect us no matter how they were found; luckily I have none that I know about – yet. While on my recent diet, I found that tracking what I eat (energy, nutrition) and its consequences (weight, digestive cues) helped. After a few weeks I developed a sense of what was good and what wasn't, and learned to stop eating just as satiation was kicking in. When I ignored that sense, my body let me know almost immediately. The benefit for others from taking this approach was through my stopping financial support of the companies that make the unhealthy foods.

A somewhat less obviously unhealthy addiction is watching TV. I easily get trapped into watching shows that end each episode with a cliffhanger, the best example being "24," which is about to be reborn as a new series. On the surface, it appears that sitting on my couch for several hours at a time harms no one, but there is a kind of opportunity cost associated with it. I could be doing something else that feels better and is generally better for me and others (such as writing), but the need to complete a virtual experience can be too great to overcome – at least until it becomes uncomfortable to continue. The best way I've found to deal with such an activity is to avoid starting it in the first place.

Similar to the TV addiction is compulsively checking the news and social Internet sites. For me, this started in earnest following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and has become driven by an obsession with present and future threats to the survival of our species and others. This is a healthy addiction where it informs acting on what you find in proportion to everything else in your life. It's unhealthy if it takes so much time that it replaces taking such action or living your own life. Accepting these definitions, it is clearly unhealthy for me. The issues are simply too big; and with any action I take (and I do what I can) unlikely to make a sufficient difference to avoid the worst-case scenarios I naturally tend to focus on preventing, it's all to easy to be driven toward near-paralyzing depression.

After some reflection, I usually give myself the proverbial kick-in-the-pants and stop feeling sorry for myself, then get busy trying to find other ways to make a difference. Some new insights come out of each iteration (which I write about, if they might be useful to someone else), but for me there's the same net result. The simple way out of this unhealthy situation is to do what I've tried with TV: just avoid it. Unfortunately, the effects are too pervasive, and I've lost the ability to totally delude myself or to follow others without question so I can get sucked into accepting their delusions.

There is also the matter of responsibility: to the extent that I'm contributing the problems, I need to stop, otherwise I continue to be partly responsible for them. To the extent that any of my addictions cause bad things to happen, I have an obligation to end those addictions. If I am able to embrace denial, either through self-deception or adopting the perceptions of others, and my subsequent actions cause harm, then I am responsible for that harm just much as if I intended to cause it.

A strong sense of responsibility could be a valuable tool in the fight to stop unhealthy behavior, though evidence shows that it's not enough, even when accompanied by discomfort that comes from taking an addiction too far. It may however be a sufficient motivator to investigate the actual consequences of behaviors, like the tracking I did with my eating. With the knowledge that comes from the tracking, taking action to modify, limit, or eliminate behaviors with negative consequences has its own challenges, especially if you depend on people who don't believe the behavior is unhealthy, or if the behavior meets a set of needs that can't be met in healthier ways; but it can be done.

To summarize: in my experience, responsibility triggers the pursuit of knowledge, which helps identify what actions are healthy and what actions are unhealthy for both us and others. The sense of responsibility, coupled with discomfort associated with unhealthy behavior, improves the chances that we'll take more healthy than unhealthy actions. In my personal attempt to restructure my life by envisioning what I want my future to be like, making healthy behavior dominant is critical. My mental and physical survival depend on it; and if I'm to recover hope that the future world will be healthier instead of sicker, I'll need to work with many others to want the same thing.

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