Please see my article, “Don’t listen to me (or even experts): My blanket disclaimer” for a brief discussion of my goal in sharing ideas on health.
A key excerpt: “We all have different bodies, lifestyles, means, likes/dislikes, goals, and many other factors which make up the context in which we are making health decisions. So my attitude is always intended to be not, “This is the right way to eat/work out” or “You should try this.” But rather: “This is what is working for me in this way. How might it apply to you in achieving your goals?””
The title of this article includes two key concepts which may often be used interchangeably, but in the context in which I will define, are very distinct. I am referring to craving and wanting, and I don’t just mean that the former is a more intense version of the latter.
Craving, as I’ll use it here, is more akin to a feeling, whim, or momentary desire, while wanting will refer to a long-range outcome chosen after conscious deliberation. In terms of physical health and diet, we might crave anything from moment to moment, situations over which we must exercise our willpower and prevail. We must prevail in order to achieve the body we want in the long-range.
As the title suggests—and something I’ve been able to accomplish with some success, the idea is to make what we crave and what we want one and the same.
Eating the right way is hard. It’s first very difficult to know what is the right way to eat. But even when many of us have a good idea of how we’d like to eat, it is very difficult to implement the diet we want. We crave certain foods we know we’d be better off without. The cravings run deep. A long history of positive associations has our brains wired to make us believe that this is something good for us and that we need to satisfy these cravings. But on the conscious level, we know that a satisfied body and a healthy body are not the same things. It’s a trick!
We can sometimes or even often deny a craving and feel glad we did later. But constant craving and denial is not a sustainable game plan. Willpower is limited. And even if we’re able to develop our willpower to levels beyond the average mortal, systemic denial is not compatible with an integrated, enjoyable, happy, flourishing life. What we’d really like is to not crave the thing at all.
While not precisely a brand new principle, Alex Epstein puts this in fresh terms to me in his Human Flourishing Project podcast episode, “How No News Leads to Good News.” The idea is, essentially, that if you change the way you view an unwanted behavior or object, the implications of your new understanding of the thing will make it unappealing, and the habit or pursuit of the thing will naturally flow away, almost on its own.
He uses the example of news. By defining news as “information about developments in other peoples’ lives shared according to other peoples’ agendas,” then by understanding the implications of this reality, you might come to view news sites, social media updates, email, etc., not as something you need or want in your life, but as something which is necessarily anti-your agenda. If you become convinced of it, you become turned off.
I have found this very effective in ridding myself of unwanted distractions, making me more productive in furthering my own agenda. [And if you take nothing away from this article besides this principle and a lead to Alex’s work, you’re welcome.]
But the success of the strategy depends on two things, in my view, which I’ll discuss as we go on: 1) That you are convinced of this new conception of news, and 2) That you are convinced of the importance of your own agenda.
This second is what I add and emphasize in this article, and is what will lead to what is suggested in the title. I believe that this conviction is a necessary condition for giving the first condition the power to turn our cravings into unattractive options.
Alex’s formulation is consistent with my general understanding of emotions, as informed by Leonard Peikoff. We experience emotions as automatic, but there is really a lightning-quick process involved, two steps of which we are unaware. While we experience emotional reactions as perception–>response, it’s actually perception–>identification–>evaluation–>response.
This explains why two people can experience the same person or thing and feel totally differently toward it. The ideas they hold regarding the perceived object in question are different, and so are their emotional reactions.
With this now, and assuming our identification is accurate, if we can change our evaluation of the identified object or behavior through conscious deliberation and conviction, the emotional response will eventually follow. When fully and genuinely convinced, we will then find that we experience the emotion as if automatic.
This has been demonstrated to me through experience countless times as, through further knowledge and understanding of a thing or person, my reaction has turned completely, in some cases from warmth and goodwill to contempt or disgust; in others, I have come to feel positively toward something or someone I used to dislike in light of new evidence. While the emotion took some time in each case to catch up with the new understanding, it eventually became automatic and irresistible, as if a primary. I now feel differently toward things because of a change in ideas.
This is a good lesson in why one has to follow reason in one’s life and not one’s feelings. Feelings don’t give you any information about what is true or false, what is good or bad for you; they only read out to you what you believe about something.
Now consider this in regard to our main concern here: our cravings for unwanted foods. When I first heard Alex’s idea about changing my concept of what news is, I realized it was true because this is what had already been happening to me in regard to eating, exercise, sleep, and other choices related to health.
I have in recent months really begun to live a very peaceful, sustainable, integrated life in terms of the health choices mentioned above and much more, as if the unwanted things were not even appealing anymore. I remarked to a friend recently that only less than half a year ago, I used to see my diet in terms of the next time I would comfortably allow myself to have pizza and ice cream. “Comfortably” here means that I had been very strict for a particular amount of time, I felt light, tight, etc., and I could have this kind of consumption event without much cost in terms of a setback in resuming my wanted state of health, i.e. how my body looked and felt. (I suppose I’ve just described the idea of leaving oneself unsatisfied over a period of time in order to earn a “cheat day.”)
Or, each time in a coffee shop with my wife, I would look at the cakes, crave them, but have to deliberate the cost of my week, whether there was a weekend event coming up in which I might be drinking or eating something compromising, or maybe this would cost me my pizza and ice cream I might have on my open Friday, etc. It was a big accounting job, and the craving had to be taken into account. I would often forgo the cake, but my craving would remain unsatisfied. And as mentioned above, denial is not a component of a flourishing life. It seemed that I had my own health set against my own happiness.
How can this be, though? It is the cry across decades of modern, affluent societies. Why can’t things that are good for me taste as sweet as sugar and things that are bad for me taste like Brussel sprouts? Is a malevolent universe set against us all in an elaborate cosmic prank? Well, this is no longer my own cry, and I need to grasp why and how. And I think I have.
What I’ve discovered is the power behind my success in being able to transform unwanted things into unappealing things. It is the power of the positive value, the thing I really want, defined clearly and felt as a constant in my existence. When I really understood and became convinced that my life is so much more enjoyable when my body is lighter, tighter, harder, rested, and relaxed—while still with lots of energy, I was drawn irresistibly to the foods and behaviors I was convinced promote that state, while turned off intuitively to things which threatened it.
To give one major example, I began to see sugar as something which softened my body, puffed my face and sides, drained my energy, stole from my muscles, and generally made me feel unwell with too much. It’s not now that cakes and ice cream, etc. don’t look good at all. (This is very hard for me to understand fully as of yet, and therefore hard to explain.) It’s more that they are just now put in their proper place. The context is set now where I am addicted to my healthy body, and am thus left unmoved by the previously attractive thing. However, they are not altogether repugnant. In another situation, I very happily enjoy a nice tart or ice cream. But they add to my life, not detract from it.
I might put it like this: In my previous condition, I might crave pizza and ice cream in a hungry state, but if put into a situation of some healthy choice, I might come to really enjoy it and not miss what I had craved at all. Now, I am craving my healthy, clean, “feel-good” state, and I would almost have to get myself into a cake and ice cream before I started to savor and enjoy it.
It was on my outdoor run yesterday where I had a big realization and was inspired to write this article. It was somewhere around mid-day, and I usually exercise fasted. (No rules on that yet! Just happens to be what’s currently working!) I was thinking about what I might have for lunch, and as I filed through options in my mind, I couldn’t quite feel anything that seemed to hit the spot.
What I realized at that moment was that what I was craving was the state I was in, and most options seemed only to disturb that and so didn’t look attractive.
This same case several months ago would have had me craving for unwanted foods and could have been satisfied in a number of “exciting” ways. I was well fasted and therefore light and unbloated, I had been “clean” for a long period, and I had just exercised. This would be a guiltless green light to any kind of “cheat” I could imagine, and there would have been almost too many options looking good that my problem would have only been in choosing between them. It is the kind of scenario I used to deny myself over time in order to arrive at.
But with all that glory at my feet, it wasn’t that I craved a “cheat” but exercised my willpower to deny myself further to push my advantage and make new gains because that’s what I really wanted. Rather, it was that what I craved—felt—above all was my current condition. I didn’t just want it so badly that I was able to with conscious effort override cravings or to quiet them. They just didn’t exist. I felt them as unappealing, unaccountably, as if a primary, automatic response.
It was then that I realized that this was how I’d been feeling for quite a long while now, as I don’t have any strong cravings around mealtimes, at least not of the kind I used to have. It’s more that I’m craving either not eating yet, or eating something clean and fresh that will prolong this bright, proud, shining feeling of mastery, energy, and strength, and general what I might just call “health,” among other positive feelings. It’s addictive.
And I think that while it is true that things which previously felt appealing to me have become unattractive almost instinctually, it is not because I have worked solely on convincing myself of their lack of appeal. It is first that I’ve convinced myself that I really want my health. It is only within that firmly established context that I really begin to believe that the unwanted thing is truly unwanted.
Having said a lot about conviction, it is worth taking a final moment to discuss how such conviction is built. How did I come to change my evaluations of what cakes and ice cream were to me, for instance? How did I take my understanding that health and mastery feel good and turn it into a craving? It wasn’t through meditation or a mantra that I came to really change my evaluations of these things (not to say that those might not be effective).
It was because I took time to develop clear conceptions of what each food or behavior is to me in the clearly defined context of why a healthy body and life are genuinely more desirable than what I used to associate with fun and satisfaction, and then through experience after experience confirming my conceptions.
For instance, many of us have experienced the feeling of awakening in the morning after having made the hard choice to forgo some nighttime snack or other. We’ve slept better, so we feel fresher, our stomach feels flatter, we feel lighter, more energetic, and a small glow of self-esteem warms our mood on top. It’s been very helpful to remember this feeling, think about why it is what it is, register it, and bring it to the present whenever I’m faced with a craving for something unwanted. Often, it’s been strong enough to have me override my craving.
I’ve also thought a lot about why I feel as bad as I do when I make unwanted choices, register those, and add these experiences to my files. I study what certain foods do to the body, compare what I read or hear against my experience, and learn. I revise my conceptions. I reinforce them. Over time, my ideas have changed. And with my ideas, the emotional responses have followed.
When trying to help students understand that the concept of rational self-interest means doing what’s good for you and thus necessarily emphasizes the rational (i.e. it requires thinking), and necessarily excludes the self-destructive whim-worshipping (i.e. do what you feel) typically associated with “selfish” people, I think it is clarifying to have them consider: “It’s easy to do what you feel. It’s hard to do what you want.”
But for me now, because I’ve put in the time to think, there is no conflict between what I feel, i.e. crave and what I want. They are one and the same. And with that, things which I define as and become convinced are anti-what I want are no longer cravings to be overcome. It’s as if a benevolent universe was set in my favor, as it’s now easy to do what I want.