We forget to put on sunscreen before going to the beach. Inevitably, we are subjected to a severe sunburn (depending on one’s level of melanin) and we are painfully conditioned to now apply sunscreen on subsequent trips to the beach to avoid that pain. A bonus, if we choose to diligently apply sunscreen for the remainder of our lives, is that we incur a much lower risk for skin cancer. Something in the short term conditions us for a benefit far in the future.
We are on our way home from work, feeling hungry and stressed, and because we didn’t think to stop at the grocery or were too far away from one, are now contemplating where we want to stop to eat dinner. It’s just this one time, we usually say, and quickly divert into the drive thru of any number of fast-food establishments. After slamming a burger, fries, and large carbonated sugar water, all that remains is a feeling of satiety and absolute bliss. We forget about the hunger, the stress, and contrary to scenario #1, we have now conditioned ourselves to seek out this sweet and salty distraction. Also contrary to the chronic sunscreen application, which will decrease the odds in which we may develop disease (skin cancer), getting into the habit of consuming fast-food after a stressful day at work may actually increase the likelihood of developing disease (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension). Something in the short term conditions us for a detriment far in the future.
Programmed to Live for the Now
It’s a fact of evolutionary biology that our species has a terribly difficult time sacrificing pleasure today in order to either increase the odds of a positive or decrease the odds of a negative, in the distant future. The further removed we are from a particular situation, whether by physical distance (geographical proximity), hedonic distance (strength of positive or negative affect), or chronological distance (tomorrow versus twenty years from now), the less importance our actions today are perceived to possess. Sticking with the fast-food example from scenario #2, it is nearly impossible to imagine what today’s self will feel like in 30 years if that same habit stays in place. The chronological distance between today’s self and one’s future self is seemingly so abstract that for the average person, it might as well be another person half-way across the globe. It takes a certain amount of creativity and perspective taking to even imagine what one’s future self will look like, let alone make certain behavioral changes today that may or may not positively impact that vision.
Unfortunately, the evolution and subsequent abundance of calorie dense and hyperpalatable food has greatly outpaced our ability to envision how the excessive consumption of those foods can negatively affect our health in the long run. Much like the algorithms used in social media platforms can easily manipulate what we believe and how we view people who don’t believe what we do, we simply have an incompatibility between the software in our own brains and the tasks required by the external world which we have engineered. In our relatively brief history living in a post-agricultural revolution society (10,000-12,000 years), there just haven’t been enough “software updates” to our brains, to know what it even feels like to be satiated on a regular basis, and that somehow declining more calories could actually lead to better health outcomes in the long run.
Just imagine how many generations of ancestors before that period operated with the assumption that food today, does not mean food tomorrow, let alone next month. It’s no wonder that if you plopped that ancestor in the middle of a Golden Corral Buffet, he or she would more than likely eat until uncomfortably stuffed, because for all they know, they may not stumble upon another source of unlimited calories for hours, days, or weeks. This hypothetical situation isn’t actually far off from today’s reality. If only there was something more acute, like a sunburn, that could serve as a non-fatal warning sign of one’s potential risk of continuing a particular lifestyle.
Much Needed Software Update
I think it’s possible to be concerned about the state of the world’s response to this current pandemic while also engaging in a search for potential positives from such a crisis. There are already several emerging positives in regards to supply-chains, vaccine development, and remote learning solutions, to name a few. I’d like to make the case that the presence of an emerging disease to which the only established way of decreasing one’s absolute risk of an adverse reaction is to go back in time and try one’s best to prevent all cardiometabolic maladies in the first place, can actually be framed in a net-positive light for humans in the long run. Obviously, going back in time is not in the tool box, but it can help shed light on the behaviors we need to engage in now to prevent adverse reactions to a different pandemic in the future, or even just this year’s influenza strain.
To be sure, one’s risk will never be zero percent (unless living in solitude is of particular interest to you), just like there are still people who unfortunately develop skin cancer even after relentlessly applying sunscreen for years. People are scared, rightfully so, about the consequences of contracting an illness for which we have no known fully efficacious treatment for. In an abstract sense, however, the fear may just be the “sunburn” that we as a society need in order to initiate positive change. There are some things that people just can’t change, like age, or pre-existing conditions, but for those that are in the position to make a change, this “software update” might actually help one visualize what today’s habits impose on one’s future self.
Visualize Your Future Self
I understand that this post may initially come across as callous and insensitive, but my hope is that it will simply encourage conversations, whether it be with a family member or with oneself. There are many things at play when it comes to developing certain risk factors that increase one’s risk of adverse reactions to any disease, but to be sure, it is not just a matter of being mentally tough and working hard to do the right thing. Of course, all adults have a certain amount of personal responsibility, but attributing all negative health outcomes simply to lacking willpower is unfair and unproductive to our species’ overall wellness.
Here is something that we can all benefit by doing occasionally: Imagine your future self. Don’t just acknowledge that someday, you may or may not be in a “high-risk” group, but really think about what your future self will look like if your current way of living continues for years to come. If you continue to go on a walk every night after dinner, maybe you’ll have a better chance of being active with your future grandchildren. If you continue to eat an apple a day, maybe you’ll actually help keep that doctor away (except for check-ups, of course). And maybe, just maybe if you continue to live a life full of wholesome foods, regular exercise, adequate sleep, social connection, and compassion, you might fend off the next airborne pathogen that comes your way. Take care of yourself, and if you have the available resources, maybe help take care of someone else too. Oh yes, and don’t forget your sunscreen.
Yours in Wellness,