The ability to control one’s own behavior is critical. But it’s hard. Really hard. Even when our lives literally depend on it.
We engage in behaviors we know are bad for our health, including alcohol and other drugs, nicotine, and unhealthy foods in unhealthy quantities. The United States is experiencing an opioid epidemic, with an estimated two million Americans dependent on prescription pain pills and street drugs.
And when it comes to positively managing our health, we also struggle. Experts estimate that 25% of all prescriptions are never filled and 50% of medications for chronic disease are not taken as prescribed. Adherence levels are low for health maintenance activities ranging from diabetes testing to breast cancer screening to regular exercise.
There is a whole field of study around why we do this and how we might change. Behavior economist Dan Ariely, author of Irrationally Yours, focuses his research on why we often behave in a way that seems inconsistent with our values. Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before and creator of the podcast Happier, focuses on how people make and break habits, which she calls “the invisible architecture of daily life,” and thus provide the key to how people might be able to change.
The challenges are many. We don't have all the facts, or we try to avoid knowing them. We like the way things used to be and find the prospect of doing things differently desperately. We decide to try, but create expectations we can’t live up to and quickly get overwhelmed. We try to do it alone and then beat ourselves up when we can’t. But the imperative is great. Health and lives are at stake.