Oscar Wilde famously could resist everything except temptation. He has a lot of company. Why do we do things that are obviously not in our best interest? Why are those well intention-ed New Year Resolutions so irresolute? And consider those undeniable guilty pleasures that offer the comfort of immediate gratification over the objections of our more “rational” self. Jonathan Haidt offers some interesting answers in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”
In one of the most widely referenced metaphors of recent years, he likens himself (and fellow bipeds) to a rider on the back of an elephant, holding the reigns resolutely, directing the elephant where he wills. Unless of course the elephant disagrees and has desires of his own. And where does a 6 ton elephant go? The answer of course is any where he wants!
Haidt explains that the mind has multiple divisions, “a loose confederation of parts,” the most important being conscious reasoning contrasted with unconscious (automatic) emotions. We reach our decisions less as autonomous individuals as members of a committee who often work at cross purposes. And the emotional elephant reigns as Chairman of the Board. Our elephant evolved quite successfully long before language and rational thought created the mind’s “I,” and most of our mental processes continue to happen “automatically” without the need for conscious attention or control (how many times have you jumped in the car, preoccupied, and arrived at your destination twenty minutes later without thinking?) We confabulate our judgements in the same way. “Feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly…”
The rider can’t simply just decide to change and order the elephant accordingly. We might be able to keep those elusive New Year’s Even resolutions for a month or two, perhaps even longer, but soon enough we find ourselves dining on pizza rather than protein shakes. Change is hard! So if our rider is destined to lose a tug of war with our willful elephant, how do we make lasting, beneficial changes? If not by sheer force, how do we get the elephant to cooperate?
I confess, I’ve never been a strong advocate of having “S.M.A.R.T.” goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Limited). I’ve found what I understood to be the Zen practice of “non-attainment” more appealing and the words attributed to the Taoist Lao Tzu more compelling; “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” But true enough, people who set goals are more likely to succeed than those who do not. An explicit commitment focuses our attention and helps to keep us on track despite the obstacles. But S.M.A.R.T goals may not be that smart if they confine us to what is “sensible” rather than “energizing.” They may actually get in the way if limited to what we think we can have rather than what we really want. A goal should liberate us to enjoy the here and be personally meaningful, not simply something we feel forced or pressured to pursue. Goals must be chosen not imposed. “ Wanting to” rather than “should or have to” makes a world of difference.
Elephant Motivating Goals:
The powerful pachyderm can thwart the best laid plans unless motivated to cooperate with the rider. Reason and emotion working together are responsible for emotional intelligence, but emotion does most of the work and supplies most of the energy. You can’t move the elephant with facts, so a skilled rider must learn to coax rather than engage in a contest of wills. To use the author’s terminology the rider must “find the feeling” and “shrink the change.”
Finding the feeling means listening to that “still, small voice within” and turning up the volume. It means answering the question, “What would I love to do right now?” It means recognizing there is something more to life than getting out of bed and doing the same thing day after day. It is realizing our most important choice is what we choose to make important and that having a goal may be more important that attaining it. Goals are means after all, not just ends. In fact, after a short lived rush, reaching the destination often results in an anti-climactic “Is that all there is?” We need to enjoy the journey where most of our time is spent.
Shrinking the change means making an intimidating long term goal more approachable by giving the elephant smaller goals and smaller successes. (to offer a cannibalistic slant on the metaphor, “how do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time”) We are most engaged with activities that command our attention and challenge us without exceeding our ability. I’m not much of a chess player, but over time have climbed to a “6” on my computer opponent’s “10” skill levels. When I consistently win at one level, I graduate up to the next. Had I started at the top, I very possibly would have stayed at the bottom. As Professor Haidt reminds us, “The elephant works the same way; It feels pleasure whenever it takes a step in the right direction.”
There are abundant tools and techniques designed to help people get more out of their lives.
Meditation, cognitive therapy, random acts of kindness, gratitude journaling, ritualizing habits, self-exploration guides, methods to identify blocks and overcome obstacles, time management and my personal favorite, dealing with procrastination. I’ll get around to discussing all of them and more…maybe tomorrow.