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Mental Strength
Published: February 01, 2018

We Do What We Know Is Bad for Us, Why?

We all know what a bad habit is. Smoking, eating unhealthy foods, excessive alcohol consumption and living a sedentary lifestyle are just some of the things that are drummed into us as behaviours we ought to avoid in order to increase our overall well-being.

Yet a study by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in the year 2000, avoidable behaviours such as poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol were some of the underlying causes of nearly half of the deaths in the United States:1

  • Tobacco: 435,000 (18.1% of total US deaths)
  • Inactivity and bad eating: 400,000 (16.6%)
  • Alcohol consumption: 85,000 (3.5%)

If we know bad habits are so detrimental to our health, why do we continue to do them?

Why we can’t resist bad habits

We all indulge in behaviours that we know aren’t good for us and there are a couple of reasons why we continue these habits regardless.

Bad habits give you the comfort you need

The first is our need to feel comfort and doing whatever it takes to reach this state.

Every action you take has a purpose behind it, even if you’re not consciously aware of what this is and the most common hidden purpose is comfort. Our brains are wired to be reward-based and our ‘reward’ is the feeling of comfort that, in turn, triggers a release of dopamine or the ‘feel good’ hormone.2 This causes us to crave more of it and so we associate this good feeling with the bad habit.

This explains why we continue to indulge in bad habits and find it hard to stop; it feels comfortable and we essentially get to exist in our ‘safe zone’. In other words, you get attracted to the reward despite knowing it’s bad for you.

Smoking that cigarette on your work breaks causes your brain to associate that habit with freedom from work and relaxing, or drinking alcohol may be associated with letting yourself go and having a good time after a hard week. The thought of exercising and making some kind of effort is overridden in the brain by the ‘easier’ thought of sitting on the couch and watching your favourite TV programme. So you can see how easily the habit is connected with reward.

Everyone else is doing the bad habit too

We also tend to rationalize our bad behaviours if society as a whole finds it acceptable. If a vast amount of people are doing the same thing, then it must be okay for us to do it too. It’s not difficult to find socially acceptable bad habits. Snacking, skipping exercises and even smoking are things that lots of people do.

This causes an inward rationalisation when it comes to unhealthy habits such as “just one more won’t hurt” or “I’ll do better next week, I’ve just had a stressful day today”. These in-the-moment justifications tend to be driven by the guilt of knowing we’re probably not making the best decision in the long run.

We also look outwards for examples that validate our bad habit decisions such as “my grandfather smoked every day and lived until he was 90.” Our minds love to find evidence that backs up our decisions, whether good or bad.

The consequences of continuing bad habits

Most people know the consequences of these types of habits. Warnings are plastered on cigarette packets about getting cancer. Governments beam healthy eating campaigns and the need to be more active through adverts and TV programmes. But what are the real long term consequences of constant bad habits?

  • Cancers, diseases and cell damage
  • Unhappiness and depression
  • Negative physical well-being leading to pain or lethargy
  • Increased physical problems in later life

Most of these can be subtle and gradual meaning we don’t notice them and easily dismiss our decisions in the moment. But being mindful of the decisions we make today can keep our wellbeing topped up and constant while investing in our future selves.

For more examples of common bad habits and how to should stop them, check out this article: 13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away

How to stop these bad habits

It’s hard to stop habits that are so ingrained in our daily lives. With stress sometimes being the main trigger to a bad habit, the solution lies with reprogramming our mind. I have covered this in my other article How to Program Your Mind to Kick the Bad Habit, here let me briefly talk about the solution:

  1. Frstly, be mindful of what these habits are and how often we do them. What exactly triggers the habit? Is it an unconscious decision to do it? Question why you have developed this habit in the first place.
  2. Secondly, make a commitment to yourself that you want to eliminate this bad habit. Now you understand what may be triggering it, can you find something positive to replace it? For example, you reach for the chocolate after a hard day. Can you find a healthier reward snack? Or reduce the amount of times you’re allowed to have chocolate? Perhaps if stress is your trigger, try going for a run and give the brain another reason to release dopamine instead.
  3. Thirdly, be consistent. The key to forming new habits is consistency. Yes, it’s hard for a while but your brain soon adapts to new ways of doing things until it starts to feel natural to you. Turn your reward system into a way to celebrate sticking to your new positive habits instead.

It’s all about conditioning yourself to a new, positive way of thinking.

Living a happier, more positive life starts with the habits we choose to form. Be mindful of which direction your habits are pointing and start changing your mindset to one of investment into your health and well-being. It’s not just for your future self but also living in the moment in a positive and healthy way.

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