By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.

If it’s post New Years, it must mean resolutions!  It is a strange quirk of human psychology that prompts us to seek restitution, resolution, and revolution at the beginning of each year.  I think intuitively we realize our failings from times past and hope for better things to come.  After all, hope is the power that fuels change, and change is what New Year’s resolutions are all about.  And this is a good thing!  It is both healthy and necessary to periodically evaluate where we are physically, spiritually and emotionally, and, more importantly, determine where we want to be.  Resolutions are really goals, and without goals our journey is chaotic.

Goal setting is part of any true success formula.  You have to know where you are going to be able to get there! A pilot friend of mine once told me that when they set a bearing for a particular airport, rarely are they ever following the exact path of the flight plan. They have a goal of landing at a particular site but reaching that goal involves numerous adjustments and recalibrating.  Likewise, once you know where you are going, you have to constantly be vigilant, re-evaluating your progress. A map or plan is worthless unless you know exactly where you are heading. That’s why we set resolutions or goals, to know our destination, the key question is how do we keep them?

Inevitably, keeping a goal or resolution involves change, and change is hard.  That’s why we don’t automatically alter our lifestyles even when we understand the advantages.  We persist in our habits, even in the midst of unhealthy behaviors that we know are killing us.  Why?  Because there is a perceived comfort in the known.  I want you to understand that there is actually terrible danger and discomfort in the status quo.  The good news is that you can win the mental battle needed to carry out those resolutions.  You have to decide now that this is absolutely what you must do.  You have to be passionate about it.

Psychologists tell us that primarily two things motivate people to action; the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. Think about a simple everyday task like brushing your teeth. The reason you do this is either to avoid the pain of decaying teeth and people passing out from smelling your breath or to have the pleasure of a beautiful smile. My guess is that the avoidance of the pain of social isolation equates with the pleasure of a toothy grin. In fact, studies indicate that people will go to greater lengths to avoid pain than they will to seek pleasure.

Our behavior can be altered by changing what we believe about the pain or pleasure of a situation. Take eating as an illustration.  There is a type of treatment called aversion therapy where the practitioner associates a certain food with a highly negative physical perception.  For example, every time a subject eats a cookie he gets a mild electric shock.  After a while, the person learns that eating a cookie is harmful and stops doing it (unless he is a Congressman, they don’t ever seem to be averse to taking things).  Don’t misunderstand; I’m not suggesting we hook you up to a car battery every time you sit down to eat a fried green tomato.  The point is that the negative reinforcement …in this case the electric shock… can be replaced by a thought.  Studies indicate that an imagined painful consequence of eating the cookie is just as powerful as the physical stimulus. 

The mind is incredibly effective at creating its own perception of reality.  What does all this have to do with making healthy lifestyle choices and keeping resolutions? Simply this…by understanding the negative consequences of being overweight, poor eating, and not exercising, you can form an association in your mind that inhibits the destructive behavior.  You avoid the pain.

After avoiding pain, people change behaviors most often to pursue pleasure.  One source of pleasure is actively listing all the benefits that you will realize by keeping a resolution and posting them boldly on the refrigerator door.  It serves as a constant, in your face, reminder of the good that comes from healthy goals.  Then you have to take the next step and which is to take action!

It all begins with a thought!  If we don’t think it first, we don’t do it.  John “The Penguin” Bingham, an overweight, out of shape, middle-aged non-runner, writing in his monthly column about his first marathon says, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” You must now find the courage to start on a path to health for you and your family.  That’s really what New Year’s resolutions are all about.

This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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