“An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure," Then What Blocks Us from Healthy Living in Our Daily Lives?

By Nikita Singh | Posted : January 14, 2019

We've all grown up hearing the phrase 'An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.' From our school days, when we were told to gulp down that glass of milk and eat an 'apple a day,' to adulthood, we’ve heard about how to prevent illness, but we still don’t put this knowledge into practice in our own lives. Today, obesity, diabetes, and other so-called lifestyle diseases are reaching epidemic proportions. Unfortunately, even children are hopping on this bandwagon.

Depression is the next 'epidemic.' There is an alarming economic impact associated with depression in the workplace. Dr. Sara Evans-Lacko, Professor for Mental Health research at the London School of Economics (LSE), looked at 'costs' of workplace depression across 8 diverse countries - she found that depression had a significant impact on the economy - an average of loss of one percent GDP for all countries (overall $220 million for 8 countries).

In a mini-survey I did with friends and working professionals across age groups and organizations, I found that everyone believes in and really wants to pursue preventive health measures of some kind. However, they say, "There’s just no time," or "You don't understand, I have a family, a boss etc.," or "But this lifestyle gives me a high. I love it.” Often, I find myself in such a situation, too. I know my health is important, but I tend to de-prioritize it.

Through these moments, days, weeks, months, and finally years of de-prioritizing, are we risking our health, happiness, productivity, and more? This got me thinking about our human psychology. We know an action may not have the most favorable consequence in the long-term, yet, in the now, we decide to do it. This fixation on the short-term may be costing individuals, our country, and the world a lot!

Perhaps, the first step is knowing what drives this fixation on immediate gratification over future consequences, especially when it comes to our health (our greatest wealth).

Below are three possible reasons:


1. Hyperbolic discounting (in simple words, the present bias).

Given two similar rewards, humans show a preference for one that arrives sooner rather than later. This leads to what behavioral economists George Ainslie and Nick Haslam call "the pervasive devaluing of the future.”

The most important consequence of hyperbolic discounting is that it creates temporary preferences for small rewards that occur sooner, over larger and later ones. Individuals using hyperbolic discounting reveal a strong tendency to make choices that are inconsistent over time.

They make choices today that their future self would prefer NOT to have made, despite knowing all the information (pros & cons). You may have heard yourself/people say, "I should've gotten my tests done earlier," or "Oh, how I wish I had picked healthier eating options."

Continuous hyperbolic discounting, when practiced by thousands of people across the nation and world, can lead to an increase in lifestyle diseases and stress, and a reduction in productivity.

2. Hedonic vs. eudaimonic happiness - what's your preference?

Perhaps, the reason hyperbolic discounting is so prevalent in today's world is because we tend to prioritize hedonic happiness (through the external pleasures of life) over eudaimonic happiness (coming from within, through a larger sense of purpose, meaning and connection).

Hedonic happiness includes all the pleasures of life - money, achievement, awards, possessions, and partying. All the things that give you a 'high.' These pleasures trigger a release of chemicals in the brain that makes us feel good. Yet, they don't last for very long. That's why if you had a burst of happiness from a piece of chocolate cake, or a raise, or a promotion, it soon wears off and you want more. It's a vicious circle. The more hedonic happiness one looks for, the more the brain may be habituated towards picking short-term over long-term preferences.

On the other hand, eudaimonic happiness comes from a sense of purpose and meaning. It's what you feel if you're contributing to something larger than yourself.

Often, in today's fast-paced, competitive world, achievement, self-esteem, power, and fame are more important goals than health, well-being, and helping others. While this doesn't and perhaps shouldn't be binary (i.e. either hedonic or eudaimonic), it definitely needs to be balanced. It may be natural, and in moderation good, to pursue hedonic happiness, but only when we understand that happiness is an internal state, de-linked from external triggers.

Ask yourself: “Are there ways in which I am letting go of my larger purpose for something in the short term? How can I overcome this? What strengths will enable me, and what obstacles do I see?”

3. Our ecosystem.

Whether we like it or not, our environment matters. A workspace that emphasizes 'results at any cost' may unintentionally discourage individuals from prioritizing well-being. Again, this isn't about one or the other, but it's really about how our ecosystem can integrate work and life, or link results and well-being?

In recent years, there’s been a lot of research on the concept of homophily - which is 'love of the same,’ also described by the proverb, “birds of a feather flock together.” As human beings, we tend to gravitate towards the similar. And the reverse is true as well - once we're part of an environment with a certain type of people, we begin to adopt similar behaviors. Therefore, whether we prioritize the short-term (hyperbolic discounting), or actually make a breakthrough and become disciplined, may depend on the environment and people we choose for company.

You may think the reality is that we may not always have a choice, especially at the workplace. However, we have a choice to associate with like-minded people pursuing similar goals (or eudaimonic happiness) outside of the workplace.

No wonder one of the biggest trends in fitness currently is social fitness, or working out in a group. The American Heart Association encourages group fitness within the local community or with friends and/or family, stating that having peers keeps you responsible for tracking your goals, which can motivate you further. This is actually interesting - because we're pursuing goals linked to overall happiness and health through some 'hedonic happiness' techniques like goal setting and tracking achievement!

So, let's be aware through the next few days about the decisions we make - how many times in a day do you fall prey to 'hyperbolic discounting’? How can you make shifts away from it in your life?

Stay tuned for upcoming pieces on specific ways to overcome this fixation on short term pleasures!

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Nikita Singh, an organizational psychologist, a certified health & wellness coach and a leadership consultant, and the founder of The Human Prism, has worked internationally in diverse industries with a keen interest in holistic, individual development.