Health Promoting Habits

Submitted on May 26, 2010 - 2:21pm
Techniques to help you overcome the social roadblocks to health

Hygiene - the science of health-provides us with powerful principles that help us understand how to live healthfully and happily. But, remarkably, even though many people have an intellectual grasp of these principles, they do not put them into practice consistently. This is true even among those who have recovered from serious illness through Hygiene, and among those who have observed this inspiring drama in someone else's life.

As a psychologist, I feel this inconsistency demands an explanation.
Difficulties we face

There are several reasons why people who understand Hygiene may not consistently live their lives healthfully. Each situation is unique. However, in my practice at the TrueNorth Health Center, I have the opportunity to conduct the Healthy Habits groups, which are therapy sessions directed at helping people sustain positive changes. In these groups, members share their difficulties and successes in their efforts towards healthful living.

Group participants report that three types of problems account for most of the obstacles to healthful living: (1) cravings for the excitement and novelty of processed foods, (2) the convenience of "fast" foods, and (3) the social pressures from friends, family, and others about this "unusual" way of eating.

While cravings and convenience issues are important obstacles in their own right, my focus here is on the problem of adverse social pressure. For many people, social pressure is the most difficult of these three formidable obstacles to healthful living.

Need to be accepted

The crux of the social pressure issue is that we care what others think. Why should this be?   Experiments by social psychologists over the past 40 years have pointed to the answer: Our natural history is one of small-group living; thus, our natural psychology is to "get along" with others. We become concerned when others are upset or alarmed, particularly in response to our behavior. And people naturally get upset whenever we stray from the socially-accepted norm.

Any significant deviation from "normal" is generally enough to cause concern, comment, and social pressure to "conform." Something as trivial as a woman choosing to wear tennis shoes with an evening gown, for example, would be considered "unthinkable" by many people. If she tried to defend her choice by saying, "But these shoes are more comfortable than my high heels," her explanation would fall on deaf, and possibly angry, ears. She may be labeled as a "nut" and will be socially punished as long as she continues to dress in an "unacceptable" way-and probably for some time afterwards, as well.

We care about what others think because in our natural history, our ancestors relied on small-group support systems for sharing resources and trading specialized talents. These small groups needed social harmony to stay together, survive, and thrive, so internal group conflict was (and is) viewed as a serious problem. Such conflict can disrupt important life-enhancing exchange and cooperation. Little wonder, then, that groups didn't (and don't) easily tolerate unusual ways of doing things.

Reducing social pressure

A key strategy for reducing social pressure is to help others increase their tolerance for how we do things. Unfortunately, trying to do this directly often leads to failure. Consider the following interchange:

Flesh-eater: "Where do you get your protein? A person can't survive eating the way you do-it's unhealthy. You'll get sick and die. You're a nut."

Hygienist: "Why don't you leave me alone and be tolerant of our differences? I won't say another word about your clogged arteries and your overly ample proportions, and you can quit calling me a 'nut.' How about it?"

Flesh-eater: "You're a nut."

An approach that works

This direct approach tends not to work. More often than not, it is better to take an indirect approach when trying to reduce the social pressure from others to conform. We cannot expect tolerance from others. But we can make what we think and do seem less bizarre, outrageous, or threatening to them. We can accomplish this by answering questions with tentative responses, rather than definitive ones. Here is an example of an approach I frequently suggest to members in our Healthy Habits groups:

Flesh-eater: "Where do you get your protein from? A person can't survive eating the way you do-it's unhealthy. You're going to get sick and die. You're a nut."

Hygienist: "Well, my diet might not be right for everyone, but it seems to be working for me. My doctor says it seems to make sense. And if it doesn't work out, I can always go back to how I was eating before."

Husband now supportive

The effectiveness of the indirect approach was demonstrated by the experience of a woman who came to the Center earlier this year. She was suffering from some rather serious health problems, and chose to undertake a therapeutic fast and to make subsequent health-promoting dietary and lifestyle changes in order to recover her health. She was under considerable stress, however, when contemplating returning to her family and trying to maintain healthy habits. Her husband was disturbed by her visit to the Center, and was openly hostile about this approach to health recovery.

In our group work, we coached her to use an indirect approach with her husband. It was most gratifying to hear from her a few weeks later. She reported her success with great pleasure. She had recently overheard her husband on the phone with one of his friends, saying how "good his wife looked," and that "the reason was probably her new diet." The new diet was "unusual," he was explaining, but that "it seemed to make sense."

Planning for success

Health results from healthful living. But sometimes this knowledge alone is not enough. Learning to overcome the social roadblocks to health can make the difference between success and failure when it comes to health and happiness.