Why does it seem harder to make positive changes in our lives, like for example, maintaining a regular exercise regimen, than it is to make negative changes, like for example, failing to maintain a regular exercise regimen. What I discuss today is relevant to this time of year during which you may be reflecting on the year coming to an end and planning for the year coming up. Making resolutions may be on your mind.
The question about why negative change seems easy and positive change seems hard can be answered by rejecting this premise and replacing it with another premise that states: making isolated changes (irrespective of whether they have a positive or negative effect in your life) is hard, while making comprehensive (holistic) changes is easier, that is, more likely to take hold and be incorporated into your life and maintained.
Act I: My Project to Ruin My Life
Let’s try a thought experiment: Let’s say that I recently reflected on my life and found it wanting. I realized that I’m “stagnating.” I love my wife but have done so for decades. My kids are doing well enough and we’re all healthy at the moment. But that’s not all; my work is gratifying and I’m well-compensated and feel validated through it, and I have enough of a social life and hobbies to make my leisure time gratifying. I approach each day with the same predictable verve and see in it opportunities to discover new things and pursue my interests.
I find myself frustrated by this sameness. I’m stuck in this wonderful life, I think, and need to shake things up. I resolve to make some long-overdue changes. I investigate and purchase a membership at a neighborhood bar. It’s not cheap but worth it: I can go as often as I like and drink as much as I want. They also have a table of free bar food, things like greasy cheese pizza and “pigs in a blanket.” This is everything I need, I think, to ruin my life and I resolve to attend three times a week.
I enthusiastically go the first Monday after signing up. Just as I planned, I overdrink and am hungover the next day. I go again Wednesday of that week and take advantage of all that life-shortening food. I get home and feel like my gall-bladder is about to explode. I miss Friday, and the following week only attend one day. I realize I’m slacking off and feel disappointed at my lack of resolve. One day, a few weeks later, I meet my friend Joe and he asks how my resolution is going. I admit I’m failing. “I’m not very regular and, frankly, I don’t enjoy it at all,” I say. “In fact, I kind of hate going to that bar and I think I’ll just cancel my membership.” Joe empathizes with my failed resolution and says, “Jack, you got to go see Melissa, a life coach I know. She’s great. She’s not cheap but she’ll absolutely help you ruin your life.” Not ready to go down in defeat, I see Melissa and explain my plight to her. “Ok Jack. I got it,” she says, “Your problem is that your life is great and it’s been stably great for a really long time. That’s a problem. If you want to succeed at ruining your life you have to approach it more broadly. I want you to start going to the bar three times a week. You’re not trying hard enough if you haven’t got caught driving under the influence. If you do, they will probably take your license away and that will have a whole series of negative consequences. OK, so now let’s turn to your personal life. You need to starting undermining your relationship with your wife.”
“Wow, but I don’t want to do that,” I say. Melissa answers, “Don’t worry, we’ll take it slow. I need you to start to needlessly criticize her. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but it’s best if it’s incessant. Don’t worry, from these small steps, you’ll be at each other’s throats within a month or two. These changes really feed on each other…. Any questions?”
Ok. That was my thought experiment for you. My point is that whatever life we have now reflects all the processes and connections that maintain it just the way it is. We are each nested dynamical systems. Dynamical systems have multiple components whose functions affect other components in complex feedback loops. This type of setup could easily lead to unstable outcomes because of all the complex and unpredictable feedback loops that continually occur. Interestingly, though, many dynamical systems are stable, including each of us embedded in our respective lifeworlds. We can and do respond flexibly but within a rather predictable range. For example, if today is a workday, I’m extremely likely to head to work, rather than to the airport to take an unplanned trip to Tahiti.
Dynamical systems can be disrupted, though, with the result that they settle into a new “attractor,” that is, they evolve to a different pattern of responding. But it usually takes a lot to get them to reset. So, our lives are the way they are because our minds pay attention to the things they normally pay attention to, think what we habitually think, feel what we feel, etc. We are caught in patterns of behavior and spend our days the ways we usually spend them and react to things that come up in ways we habitually do. We are caught in a web of relationships that don’t dramatically change from day to day or month to month. If I did take that trip to Tahiti it would strongly suggest that some dramatic underlying change occurred. Maybe I had a stroke and lost my judgment. Or maybe I hated my current life so much, while keeping it a secret, that I decided to “chuck it all” and escape from it, come what may.
It’s a good thing that dynamical systems tend towards stability. Sure, making positive change is challenging and effortful. But whatever your life is like right now, there is a long way to fall. Be glad you are the type of system that tends towards stability.
ACT III: What to do then?
To make and maintain positive changes in your life, given the tendency of your system to return to its initial state, changes should be as comprehensive as possible. Even though the change you want is a positive one, it nevertheless, requires a disruption of your life system. And that takes a lot.
Consider two systems of change: The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and all its offshoots) and the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Notice that its not the 2 Step Program nor the Noble Onefold Path. Why do you think that is? Because the Buddha and many others interested in helping people achieve positive change – even dramatic life-altering change – have realized that change, to work, must be comprehensive. Here is the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path:
- Right view
- Right resolve
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right meditative concentration
Amazing, isn’t it. The Buddha’s program was a transcendental religious one, of course, to liberate humans from the endless cycle of rebirth, but his lessons apply to all transformative life change and is based on the realization to such change is hard to achieve. To increase his follower’s chances of success, the Buddha prescribed an entire program of interrelated mental and physical activities that lead to virtuous cycles, ultimately allowing a person to transcend their current way of awareness, thinking, feeling, and acting.
Because of a dynamical system’s tendency towards stability, making one-off changes is usually not enough to disrupt the system. On the bad side, this stability results in difficulty in making and then maintaining positive changes, like going to the gym regularly. On the good side, this stability also results in difficulty in disrupting the system in a detrimental way. It usually takes a series of bad events to lead to someone’s life to fall apart.
So, here are my recommendations:
- Maintain and Nurture Your Ties that BindEven if things are not perfect in your life, there is a long way to fall if your current ways of being, your processes and connections, become frayed and begin to fail. So, cherish the ones you love and who love you. Treat your friends well. If there is nothing good that comes from knowing you, then friends will stop showing up.
- Increase Your ResilienceEven a stable system can fail if it faces enough shocks. Protect yourself against possible negative events. Invest in your education and training so that your skills are as valuable or more valuable tomorrow as they are today. Have some money on hand. Get the insurance you need. Plan ahead.
- Engage in Comprehensive ChangeIf you want to improve your life, then recognize problems early since the more disruptive they become the harder they will be to resolve. Make the positive changes in your as comprehensive as possible. Involve as many parts of your system as you can: don’t change one activity, change your lifestyle. I give an example below.
Example of Improving Healthy Behaviors
I started with the ridiculous example of my failing in maintaining my bar activities after getting a bar membership. Now let’s consider the less ridiculous example of maintaining regular workout and other health activities.
If you have or are thinking of going to a gym, health club, yoga class, etc, then prepare to succeed. To do so, start by asking yourself if you have time to attend the workout sessions or classes. Do you have swaths of free time during your day you’re looking to fill? If not, then maybe something else has to stop or take less time.
Maybe you spend a lot of time on food prep for yourself or family. Could you make this more efficient, healthy, and fun? Maybe each Sunday afternoon you and your sig other or whole family can cook together and prepare most of the food for the week. If you have kids, in twenty years what they remember most for their childhoods might be cooking or baking with mom or dad. (At least those are my favorite childhood memories – making Polish paczki and chrusciki with my mom.)
So, you add this positive activity to give you more time to go to the health club during the week. What else can you do? How about going with a friend or your sig other. Or joining a group of friends swimming, running, cycling, hiking, or training for a marathon. Now, you’re not only getting in better shape, your bonding with friends.
What about work? Maybe your hours are too long. Maybe you take too much time writing progress notes or completing other paperwork. You can’t eliminate these tasks perhaps, but you can get more efficient at them. (Write me for advice.) Now, you achieve greater work satisfaction and have more time for health or family-related activities. And, continue this way of thinking. Don’t reconfigure an isolated piece without regard to how that one change will likely affect other pieces. Make the entire puzzle of life fit well.
I hope I’ve given you enough food for thought. Let me know what you think and, more importantly, what you’ll do to achieve, even if not enlightenment, then a life of greater flourishing.
“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”