People are notoriously bad at sacrificing today in order to gain tomorrow. We tend to be very present moment-focused, and assign greater value to something we can have immediately rather than later. This has dire implications for health behavior, since it means many people would rather:
- Eat a delicious but unhealthy meal (rather than forgoing it for future health)
- Relax on the couch (rather than exercising for future fitness)
- Have an extra drink with friends (rather than calling it a night for future freedom from hangovers)
We can curtail our now-focus somewhat by thinking about our future selves, although there’s certainly individual difference in our ability to do that. The classic example of differences in ability to delay pleasure for the future is Walter Mischel’s marshmallow tests. In these studies, children are given an option to enjoy a treat (often a marshmallow) now, or wait until later for a bigger treat. Some kids wait and others don’t. What’s interesting is that the kids who are able to delay gratification go on to become adults who are better at delaying gratification. There’s even a robust correlation between childhood success at the marshmallow test and teenage achievement on the SAT, although Mischel himself is careful to caution that children can learn to improve their willpower.
When it comes to health, we often talk about helping people frame their behaviors in terms of a valued mission or long term goal. Instead of talking about some nebulous future, we make the goals of changing health behavior both real and personal by talking about something the person really values. Does framing health behavior change in terms of a valued personal goal increase our ability to play the long game?
Evidence suggests it might. Research on having mission and health outcomes shows that people with these personal goals are more likely to:
- Use preventative health care (Kim, Strecher, & Ryff, 2014)
- Seek treatment for and recover from drug addiction (Martin, MacKinnon, Johnson, & Rohsenow, 2011)
- Have enjoyable sex lives (Prairie, Scheier, Matthews, Chang, & Hess, 2011)
- Avoid cognitive decline and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (Boyle, Buchman, Barnes, & Bennett, 2010)
- Live longer (Hill & Turiano, 2014; Krause, 2009)
Changing health behaviors is hard, but knowing what matters most to you can really help you to do it–and sustain those changes over a lifetime. These findings suggest that the first step to better health doesn’t happen in the gym or the grocery store, but rather in your own mind as you seek to clarify what’s really important in your own life. Figure out your mission, and then you can play the long game.
Boyle, P. A., Buchman, A. S., Barnes, L. L., & Bennett, D. A. (2010). Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(3), 304-310.
Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1482-1486.
Kim, E. S., Strecher, V. J., & Ryff, C. D. (2014). Purpose in life and use of preventive health care services. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(46), p. 16331-16336. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1414826111
Krause, N. (2009). Meaning in Life and Mortality. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 64(4), 517-527.
Martin, R. A., MacKinnon, S., Johnson, J., & Rohsenow, D. J. (2011). Purpose in Life Predicts Treatment Outcome Among Adult Cocaine Abusers In Treatment. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 40(2), 183-188.
Prairie, B. A., Scheier, M. F., Matthews, K. A., Chang, C. C. H., & Hess, R. (2011). A higher sense of purpose in life is associated with sexual enjoyment in midlife women. Menopause, 18(8), 839-844.