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Are You Really Choosing?

Are you really choosing?

Have you ever stopped to wonder how you gotten to this place in life? To this particular moment? Both are the result of thousands and thousands of choices. 

Most of our choices in life are dictated by our likes and dislikes: the brain is wired ​to move us towards and repeat things that we like and give us pleasure, and away from and avoid those things we dislike.​

This all happens through the pleasure and reward system of dopamine: do something we like, we get a hit of pleasure. Do something we need to do, we reward ourselves with a treat that gives us pleasure. ​

This system generally works pretty well, advancing us along in life. Until it doesn’t.

There are a few problems with relying on our system of likes and dislikes to guide our lives, which I will explore below.

Likes and dislikes are an equal opportunity employer. That is to say, the pleasure system is not set up to evaluate the quality or even the morality of what is giving you pleasure. A prime example of how this can get us in trouble is with sweets. When we eat sugar and flour products, we get a hit of dopamine. That easy access to an (artificial) source of pleasure easily gets us hooked: the reward is swift and clear. Another good example is alcohol.

If we don’t engage the evaluative part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex, to weigh and measure the relative value of what we like, then we can get stuck in a cycle of just pursuing pleasure, even if it is to our physical or mental detriment.

Lots of things can go wrong if we don’t properly evaluate our likes and dislikes. We can eat too much of some things, and not enough of others. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the bad things don’t matter that much. Without exercising the evaluative aspects of our brains in our behaviors, we can devolve into self-justifications (“because I like it!”) that can do a lot of damage.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself before pursuing or indulging in a sweet treat or something that will bring you pleasure: Is this for the highest good? By asking this question, we are drawn out of the immediacy of the “current good” and place our attention on the longer-term prospects of the decision. Even if you choose to still eat the treat or have the drink, you will at least be making a conscious choice, bringing awareness to the moment and the process of deciding.

Your taste buds have been hijacked. Over the past 30 years or so, the sugar and processed food industry has increasingly hacked into our pleasure system by adding sugar to a huge amount of foods in the supermarket. It is estimated that 74% of foods in the supermarket have added sugar in them. This is having a huge effect on our heath. For starters, it gets our taste buds used to an increasing amount of sweet taste. When this happens, naturally sweet things like apples begin to lose their appeal. We end up needing more and more sweet to get the same amount of pleasure, which can lead to eating entire pints of ice cream or bags of chips.

Another thing that happens when our taste buds are hijacked is that we relinquish our personal power to the keepers of the kingdom: we become enslaved to this easy source of pleasure and forget about our innate ability to access pleasure in our bodies and in the natural world that are free and abundant, and our birthright. The truth is that there is nothing standing in the way of you and experiencing a hit pleasure any time you want it: just take a deep breath.

Wait, what?! I get it: taking a deep breath is not the same as having a homemade brownie. But I can tell you that once you remove added sugar from your diet, you start re-acclimating your taste buds and pleasure receptors to the natural sweetness in fruits and vegetables, water and air.

There’s a whole lot of freedom right there.

Another way our pursuit of pleasure robs us of our health is that when we don’t get it, the object of our desire, we feel deprived. That’s because we’ve become overly reliant on sugar and flour products for our hits of pleasure, so it would make sense that if you took it away you would feel deprived. Again, the antidote is increasing the other, simple, not chemically-induced means of experiencing pleasure in your life, so when you reduce or remove sugar (or alcohol) you’re not left without pleasure.

All this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a chocolate chip cookie or a nice glass of wine once in a while. But when you’re free of the tyranny of a sugar addiction you have it by choice rather than need.

Take it or leave it – that’s true choice.

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