Guest Blogger: David Krueger MD
At a recent World Economic Forum, eight Nobel Prize winners were asked the question, “What do you see as the world’s biggest challenges?”
While the discussions touched on over-population, unemployment, environment, and inequality, the central theme was that we don’t make a connection between our current behavior and the future consequences. Two-time Nobel Prize winner Astrophysics Saul Perlmutter summarized, “We’re limited by being human. We want results fast, and we discount the future.”
Our brains are wired to the present, alert to pleasure and immediate threat. We are pulled to quick gratification, and have trouble visualizing our future selves. The common mistake we have in investing, according to Daniel Kahneman, is to choose a little now rather than a lot later.
The specific challenge we have is to regulate our states of mind. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect is an awareness of the patterns and events that deplete reserves to withdraw energy from our emotional bank account.
- The more frequently or recently a desire is resisted, the harder it is to resist a subsequent desire
- Will power and self control efforts are more likely to diminish as the day goes on
- Will power is depleted after stress, including response to an upsetting event
- Both fatigue and hunger can cause people to fall back to earlier default modes of thinking and deciding
When we become depleted for any reason, including exercising will power, the tired brain yields more readily to temptation. This is why we may more easily succumb to temptation at the end of the day. (Have you ever had to struggle with saying “no” to strawberry-topped cheesecake when you first wake up?)
Eight parole judges were studied for their decision-making regarding applications for parole. The average among all judges: 35% parole request approval. However, the exact time of each decision was studied in relation to the judge’s three food breaks: morning break, lunch break, and afternoon break. After each meal: 65% parole request approval. Just before lunch and the end of the day: almost 0% approval rate. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
We can learn to be far more aware of our behavior, less short term in our perspective. Awareness of what depletes and what enhances our ability to control states of mind can directly impact regulation of:
- Over-spending on impulse purchases
- Abandoning a healthy diet
- Acting on a lowered threshold for annoyance or impulsivity
- Performing less well on cognitive tasks and logical decision-making
- Persisting for less time in challenging tasks
Mental energy is more than a metaphor, requiring both a plan and practice. Specific rituals—behaviors, practices, meditation—that eventually become automatic create sustainable effectiveness and overall well-being.