If you would have asked me ten years ago what single thing would have made me the happiest I would have responded with a number of pounds I would have liked to lose. That response would remain the same for the next seven years.
It’s not that my weight didn’t change at all over this period of time—quite the opposite. I dropped, then subsequently regained, somewhere between 40 and 60 pounds five times throughout this time period. No matter what I tried I couldn’t keep the weight off. Being overweight was frustrating, but seeing the weight come off and back on again time after time was a special kind of torture. The cycle was vicious. After “successfully” losing weight through unsustainable techniques I would be ecstatic, but it would never take long for my weight to start creeping back up.
A common approach of mine was to barricade myself from social gatherings because it was so difficult to be around food and drinks while on an overly restrictive diet. Strict dieting leads to severe feelings of deprivation, but my approach lead to two different kinds of deprivation. I would finish a diet longing for all of the foods I had been restricting as well as craving time out with the friends I had been neglecting.
This strategy inevitably lead to a string of eating out and excessive partying—all bets were off. I had been repressing my cravings so intensely that an insatiable hunger welled up inside me, and it was finally ready to rear its ugly head. With these extreme dieting tactics, it always seemed that I would put the weight on about twice as fast as it had come off. Back to square one. For anyone with disordered eating habits this cycle may sound painfully familiar.
Thinking back on it is frustrating for me, I would forgo all happiness with a singular goal in mind. In one of the more extreme cases I spent an entire summer in a massive caloric deficit and ended up losing 45 pounds over the course of three months. This summer should have been incredible on all fronts. I was home for the summer between semesters of college, spending my days working with a few close friends. This would be the last summer I would ever spend living with my family—it should have been one of the best times of my life.
My weight had crept up during college (a recurring trend I had yet to put together at this point) losing it was my single objective. It didn’t matter what I had to sacrifice. My happiness was of no importance, I could be happy once I was a healthy weight. I didn’t deserve to be happy after being lazy and undisciplined. “You do the crime you do the time” was the mantra for the summer.
Do the time I did. If I had to sum up the way I felt about that summer into one word it would simply be: hungry. Hungry after breakfast. Hungry after lunch. Hungry after dinner. Hungry to bed. I had a recurring dream during this time, I would “wake up” in the dream starving and craving food. From there I would immediately run to the pantry and dive hand first into a jar of peanut butter, typically followed by cleaning out all the ice cream in the freezer. To my relief, I would wake up drenched in sweat but elated that I didn’t binge to my heart’s content. This played out many times over the course of those three months, obviously, this was a sign that something was wrong, but I pushed on.
On the surface my goal may have seemed vain. I won’t deny it, looking better certainly motivated me. Though being more attractive was only ever a small part of my motives. I believed being overweight was central to my many health issues, and I was right. But I did make one critical miscalculation.
I thought losing weight would bring me happiness.
I had begun to pile up all of the things I thought my life was lacking and assume that being overweight was the core reason for these problems. Rather than deal with any of these other issues in my life I ignored them. “Weighing under 200 pounds would fix everything”, I told myself as I pushed on.
My happiness for the entire day would be based around the scale. If the weight was lower than I had seen before I would be happy… for a moment. Then immediately start looking ahead to the next milestone I could hit, barely talking a minute to think about or enjoy my accomplishment.
One might think that hitting these goals would have increased my happiness, but this was far from the case. Instead of taking a moment to enjoy what I had accomplished I would push that celebration into the future. I could celebrate when I reached my final goal, then I would truly be happy. Conversely, if the weight was up from the previous day my mood would be terrible. Instead of continuing on with my already extreme caloric deficit I would go even lower.
When it comes to exercise things weren’t much better, I found out pretty quickly that lifting weights would drastically increase my hunger levels. So, naturally, I cut it out completely. After all, if my goal was simply to lose weight, who cares if I lost a few pounds of muscle too? This was asinine. Muscle takes a significantly longer time to gain than fat and is immensely important to longevity and overall health. Of the 45 pounds I lost that summer a big portion of it was muscle.
But hunger wasn’t the only thing I was pushing through. My body was screaming for me to stop following this path. The prospect of hanging out with friends just sounded exhausting. My sex drive was nonexistent, in the kind of way that only severe calorie deficits can do to a person. To cap it all off the eczema on my skin was worse than ever, but still, I pushed on through.
Come the end of the summer I got pretty close to my goal, I made it to two hundred and five pounds. But you know what? I still wasn’t happy. I accomplished nearly every goal I set out for myself, successfully dropping over 45 pounds in the course of three months. Still I felt vacant. My story isn’t all that unique. So often the things we think we want end up making us less happy than we were in the first place.
At the time I had very little idea what the root of the problem was. Looking back now the reasons I couldn’t enjoy my newfound progress are easy to pinpoint.
Hedonic Adaptation (also known as the hedonic treadmill) is the tendency of human beings to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. It involves the idea of a happiness “set point” where despite varied emotional situations a persons happiness always returns back to baseline.
My favorite analogy to use when describing hedonic adaptation is travel, let’s use Steve as an example. Steve has been living in the same town since he was born, and life is alright. By all accounts, he has the stuff that he needs, a nice place to live, a loving family, supportive friends, but it’s all so monotonous.
One day while Steve is mindlessly going through the same chores and checklists that he goes through after work he starts to daydream about all of the places that he would rather be than here. He could go somewhere like Scotland, with castles all around and beautiful rolling hills. Or maybe Southeast Asia with beautiful beaches, he could finally see how different cultures lived.
So Steve takes a trip, and boy does he enjoy himself, it is a respite from all the consistency and sameness he has grown so frustrated with. Everything is a new experience, every meal exciting, each conversation unique. “If only I could live like this forever”, he tells himself.
Inevitably he must go back home to the humdrum life he desperately wanted to escape and the old stuffy routine begins to overtake his days.
Steve thinks back on his trip and how much he relished all of the new experiences he was able to enjoy while he was away. Maybe he just lives in a boring place? After months back and being as miserable as he was before his vacation Steve starts scheming, he’s going to move somewhere far away.
He packs life up into a handful of boxes and begins to say goodbyes to his friends and family. Steve is sad he is leaving so many of his loved ones behind and hopes they will understand his decision—after all, he wasn’t happy.
Once Steve arrives that same thrilling feeling sets in, everything is new again. He makes friends, all of which have exciting and fun lives so different from his friends back home. After a while, he finds a new job. Working in this new culture is challenging, even his daily routine becomes enjoyable. By all accounts, Steve is happy with his decision to move.
Unfortunately this feeling fades; as the months go by the new scenery and culture begin to grow stale. Steve still enjoys spending time with his new friends and co-workers but after living there for a while he realizes that behind the cultural differences the people here are just like his old friends and co-workers from back home. He begins to get into a rut with his new job, what was once challenging and new he can now do in his sleep. Even the beautiful scenery starts to lose it’s luster now that he sees it day in and day out.
Fast forward a year later and Steve is starting to think he should start to plan another trip to get away from it all.
So many of the things that we think will make us happy quickly become the new normal given enough time. We humans are always looking forward to the next best thing.
I had to learn this the hard way when it came to my weight. Whenever I would drop a few pounds it would be enjoyable for a while, but it would gradually become the baseline.
How do we deal with this? Hedonic adaptation is not a problem to fix. It is a core part of our wiring as human beings. This is not something that we can remedy, rather we need to be cognizant of hedonic adaptation and learn to live in accordance with it. Before setting a goal I now remind myself that reaching the end goal will not necessarily bring the happiness that I imagine it will.
In the case of weight, learning how to be grateful for what I currently have is one of the things that helped me to keep the weight off permanently. This sounds counter intuitive. I hear the phrase “If you eat the right way, you will lose the weight” thrown around frequently. At its core this is true, there is no way to get around certain realities of weight loss, however people routinely fail when employing this approach. Internalizing the idea of appreciating what you have along the way helps reduce stress. Which reduces hunger levels and in turn stress induced eating.
Spending time thinking about how hitting a weight loss goal may not make me any happier, actually helped me to lose weight. This coupled with making a conscious effort to fully enjoy myself while dieting made all of the difference.
Knowing I Have Control
You may have guessed it already, but the weight from that summer didn’t stay off for long. I tried my best to continue exercising and attempted to lift weights to gain back some of the muscle that had wasted away over those three months. All the fat came back—with a few pounds extra.
As I write this I am in the best shape of my life. I am constantly grateful for how much better my health is these days. But the thing makes me the happiest is not the lower weight. It’s the control.
There are a lot of things that are better about not being overweight. The increased energy, more confidence, being able to enjoy physical activity, and a hugely improved sex life. Even still the thing that made me happier every single day is the knowledge that I will never go back.
Control over my eating habits and weight is the most empowering skill I have gained in my life.
Most people are confident they know how to lose weight: simply eat less. The first time they fail their confidence starts to falter. A feeling of disorder enters into their lives and this self-doubt carries over into the next diet they pursue. If they, like most people, fail on some kind of diet multiple times per year then this lack of control grows exponentially.
Fortunately, there are ways to regain it.
Learning to Control
For me, control came through understanding. I wish I could say I had a single piece of advice that would fix everyone’s health problems, but Ordered Eating is something I am still working toward every day. It starts with a lengthy process of learning. First and foremost gaining a deep understanding of the mechanisms behind weight gain, secondly (and significantly more challenging) learning how my own body and mind works.
Although there is much debate around why people gain weight and which ideology is the best for losing it, many of the approaches can work. The difficult bit becomes why these approaches work for better some people than others. Everyone is so unique. The number of forces influencing a single persons weight are numerous, and these variables aren’t all biological.
Emotions play a large role in what, why, when, and how we eat. Yet emotions aren’t usually taken into account during scientific studies examining diet and weight loss. Understanding the role emotions play when examining your own diet and weight loss is critically important
This doesn’t mean that we have to give up on an analytical approach to dealing with our weight, it simply means that the role of scientist/researcher has fallen to us. We must learn from the dietary mistakes of our past rather than attempting the same approach that has failed time and again. Learning to be an ordered eater requires a deep level of self-observation and understanding of the reasons behind why we eat. It is through this experimentation, reflection, and curiosity that we can bring control and confidence into our lives.