With New Year’s just around the corner, more and more people will be thinking about diets and losing weight, at least if prior trends are any indication. Last year, for example, 12% of people said they wanted to lose weight, which shared the top spot with people resolving to become a better person.
And it’s not too surprising when you think about what diets promise. It’s not losing weight, despite what the ads say.
Diets promise happiness.
When you go on a diet, you’re told that you’ll lose weight, and suddenly your life will be better. You’ll be a happier person.
The problem is, it’s a false promise. Even worse, chasing happiness this way is likely to backfire.
The good news is, you don’t have to go the diet route. But before I get to that, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with diets.
Diets Don’t Bring Happiness
If you’ve ever been on a diet, think back to how you felt.
When you started, you probably felt excited and virtuous. You were doing the “right” thing and eating foods you “should” be having. If a doctor or anyone else bugged you about your weight, you could say with confidence that you were on a diet.
If you felt any happiness, it likely came from anticipation, when you assumed the diet would work and imagined yourself in the “after” phase of being thin.
You might have pictured yourself wearing a bikini at the beach and turning heads. Maybe it was simply the idea of going into the store and buying smaller size clothes. Or maybe it was dreaming of being able to do some of the physical activities you hadn’t been able to do, like hiking or biking or just going up a couple of flights of stairs without trouble.
But that happiness was all in your imagination. The diet itself didn’t make you happy.
This is especially true when you consider what happens when the virtuous glow wears off.
At first, you might not have felt too badly about not eating cookies or ice cream or cake or whatever else was off-limits in your diet. If you saw other people eating them, or smelled those foods, or saw ads for them, you could picture your future happy self and remind yourself it was all worth it.
After not too long, though, you probably started resenting what you couldn’t eat. You started wanting those foods again. This time, imagining your future self wasn’t enough. You didn’t want to wait for happiness – you wanted something that you could enjoy now.
By this point, if anything, the diet made you feel worse than you did before starting. You hadn’t lost much (if any) weight, you were eating foods out of a sense of duty and restriction, and you wanted something that made you feel good and happy without having to wait weeks or months.
The result? You went back to eating those foods, maybe even more than you did before, and then felt guilty and miserable about it. Oh, and if you lost any weight, you probably gained it back plus some.
Or at least, this is how diets worked for me, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Is Happiness the Right Goal?
Then there’s the whole question of whether you should be going after happiness to begin with. Yes, it’s part of the constitution in the United States, that one of our “unalienable rights” is the pursuit of happiness.
But this pursuit has some problems. One issue is that too often, people are looking for something external to make them happy. You might feel like a big change – a new job, a new romantic partner, a new hairdo, a new outfit, a new look from losing weight – would automatically change everything. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
When you get whatever it is that you’re chasing, it becomes part of your “new normal.” When it’s no longer a bright and shiny object, it doesn’t make you as happy anymore. You just expect it as part of your life and need something new to make you happy. You could even find yourself on an endless quest, constantly going after something new.
Another problem is that focusing only on happiness can lead to an obsession with avoiding sadness and pain. As Hugh Mackay, an Australian social researcher, states:
It's a really odd thing that we're now seeing people saying, "Write down three things that made you happy today before you go to sleep," and "Cheer up" and "Happiness is our birthright," and so on. We're kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position -- it's rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don't teach us much….
Of course you want to be happy some of the time, but it will never be your default emotion. Everyone has ups and downs, and expecting otherwise will set you up for disappointment.
What to Focus on Instead
Does this mean there’s no way to get more happiness into your life? Not quite.
According to cognitive psychologist Rick Hanson, “the simple secret to boosting our happiness levels is to maximize life's everyday simple pleasures and small joys, which we can do by lingering on positive moments and finding small ways to build more joy into our lives.”
In other words, to practice mindfulness.
If you notice the little things that you enjoy and make this a focus of your everyday life, you don’t need to go off on a grand quest for something that you think will make you happy, whether it’s losing weight or buying something new. You’ll always have ways to find joy.
When you let go of this idea of “pursuing” happiness, you can also view life’s inevitable challenges in a different way. They’re not derailing you from your goal. Rather, they’re part of how you learn about life and what truly matters to you.
The Coming Year
With all that in mind, what will you focus on for the coming year? Or will you avoid any kind of resolutions or goals? I’d love to hear about it.
Personally, I’m going to think about if I’ve been looking for happiness in the wrong places, or if I’ve been setting myself up for disappointment by having false expectations of certain goals. And I’ll continue to look for contentment and pleasure in small things, such as my playful cats, the company of friends, and the beauty of the natural world.
I hope you, too, can find some of these small moments of joy and peace in the new year.