One of the great mysteries of happiness is: why don’t we do the things that we know will make us happy? Why do we skip exercising? Why do we eat two doughnuts for breakfast? Why do we buy that thing we don’t really need? Etc.
Often, I know I’ll be happier if I don’t indulge in something. For example, I won’t be happy if I eat five cookies — and I’m the kind of person who can’t eat just one cookie.
A piece of advice I often see is, “Be moderate. Don’t have ice cream every night, but if you try to deny yourself altogether, you’ll fall off the wagon. Allow yourself to have the occasional treat, it will help you stick to your plan.”
I’ve come to believe that this is good advice for some people: the “moderators.” They do better when they try to make moderate changes, when they avoid absolutes and bright lines.
For a long time, I kept trying this strategy of moderation – and failing. Then I read a line from Samuel Johnson: “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” Ah ha! Like Dr. Johnson, I’m an “abstainer.”
I find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. When I admitted to myself that I was eating my favorite frozen “fake food” treat, Tasti D-Lite, two and even three times a day, I gave it up cold turkey. That was far easier for me to do than to eat Tasti D-Lite twice a week. If I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count?’” etc. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.
There’s no right way or wrong way – it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of time justifying why they should go ahead and indulge.
However, in my experience, both moderators and abstainers try hard to convert the other team. A nutritionist once told me, “I tell my clients to follow the 80/20 rule. Be healthy 80% of the time, indulge within reason, 20% of the time.” She wouldn’t consider my point of view — that a 100% rule might be easier for someone like me to follow.
People can be surprisingly judgmental about which approach you take. As an abstainer, I often get disapproving comments like, “It’s not healthy to take such a severe approach” or “It would be better to learn how to manage yourself” or “Can’t you let yourself have a little fun?” On the other hand, I hear fellow abstainer-types saying to moderators, “You can’t keep cheating and expect to make progress” or “Why don’t you just go cold turkey?” But different approaches work for different people. (Exception: with an actual addiction, like alcohol or cigarettes, people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.)
You’re a moderator if you…
— find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure – and strengthens your resolve
— get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something
You’re an abstainer if you…
— have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
— aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits
Now, sometimes, instead of trying to give something up, we’re trying to push ourselves to embrace something. Go to the gym, eat vegetables, work on a disagreeable project.
Perhaps this is the flip side of being an abstainer, but I’ve found that if I’m trying to make myself do something, I do better if I do that thing every day. When people ask me advice about keeping a blog, one of my recommendations is, “Post every day, or six days a week.” Weirdly, it’s easier to write a blog every day than it is to write it three or four times a week. I don’t know how moderators feel about this. (Moderators – what do you think? Is it easier to go for a half-hour walk every day, or four times a week, for you?)
So … do you identify as an abstainer or a moderator? Do these categories ring true for you?