Ice Cream vs. Broccoli

What if…

Someone invented a food that tasted just like ice cream (yum), but was as good for you as eating broccoli?  What if it tasted like pizza, but had the health benefits of grass fed beef?

Whoever creates such foods would be rich, no doubt.  Would you buy it?  Personally, I’d live off the stuff.  Of course, the skeptic in all of us tell us that it’s too good to be true, it would probably cause cancer, or have some other bad effects. Just pretend, for a minute, that it’s real.  And that it’s not too good to be true.

Now, let’s talk about associations.  Every day we’re associating our feelings to events, people, and objects.

Dogs are good at associations.  Say the word “treat”, and watch your dog’s tail wag.

I like to pretend the dog has been studying English in its spare time, and now understands every word you say, and is excited at the prospect of receiving a treat – as you just promised.  In actuality, though the dog doesn’t really speak or understand the language, he has a very strong positive association to that particular word.  He knows that in the past, that word has been followed by good things.  So while your dog isn’t genuinely excited about you saying treat – he is excited about what it brings.

We do the same thing.  Could be a survival instinct – we naturally gravitate to things which we have associated with positive feelings, and avoid those things which have brought us pain.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he described groups of people which have proven themselves to be the cream of the crop, best of the best.  Think professional athletes.  While I can’t say it nearly as well as Gladwell did (go buy the book if you haven’t already), here’s my attempt at summarizing one concept from that book:

People who reach the top started with some small successes, developed positive associations to those successes, which in turn, created enjoyment in achievement, and led to more “practice”.  Then it repeated.

Video games are a perfect illustration of this concept.  Why are they so fun, despite the lack of any true productivity, gain, or achievement?  Because they run you through this cycle over and over again, faster than almost anything else we experience.  The attraction to the achievement is multiplied because of how often we get those positive reinforcers.  Our “work” on the video game carries with it incredible positive associations.

Are you still here?  Wow.  As a reward, here’s this picture description of how to rise to the top.

So is that it, we’re just going to be the average of all the influencers on our lives – the best video games decide what and who we are?

Nah, the thing is – we can (to some degree) control the forming of our associations.  In other words, you have the power to create enjoyment in tasks that you previously hated.  Put on your favorite music while you exercise.  If you like eating healthy, but hate cooking, then make it your mission to cook healthy food efficiently.

Reward yourself constantly for good habits.  Just make sure those rewards aren’t counter productive to the goal.  A bad reward for sticking to your diet is to drink a milkshake.  That means you’re just enduring the diet long enough to be free of it.  What I’m suggesting is a new mindset where you enjoy the diet in and of itself.

On the low end of the scale, this looks like menial tasks being bearable.

On the high end of the scale, it turns broccoli into ice cream.

Smokers – re-frame how you think of cigarettes.  They are not a saving grace to stressful situations and a relaxer that makes you feel better about life.  If you believe that, you won’t quit.  They are a damaging habit that pulls you further from your goals.  Short term, yes, they make you feel better.  But for every ounce of relaxation or stress relief you get from smoking a cigarette, you will have ten times that amount of stress piled on you in ways you don’t realize are tied to the cigarettes.  You’ll see them as facts of life, or just chance happenings.  If you could clearly see how bad the cigarettes are impacting you, then you’d quit today.  Associate.  And then quit forever.

Ignore the promise of instant success and fast happiness – especially in the form of pills or “special secret workout routines”.  If you are looking to minimize the amount of effort you need to put in, then you have a loser’s mindset.  If you’re looking to enjoy and appreciate the process of getting what you want out of life, then you’ve already won.

The Upward Spiral is just as hard to stop as a downward spiral.  It can also be just as easy to start.  So let’s go up!

One Response to “Ice Cream vs. Broccoli”

  1. Justin

    I read this just at the right time.. heading back to the gym after a hiatus. I’m thinking to myself “I’m starving!”, where can I go eat AFTER the gym?!

    Sushi. Perfect. A treat, but not counter-productive to my goal.


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