I just finished reading Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives in which she puts forth the argument that the world is divided into two types of people, moderators and abstainers. Much of our happiness and daily comfort is attributed to how successful we are at maintaining habits, and these quite often involve avoiding excess. Moderators typically have the capacity to limit themselves when it is beneficial to their wellbeing, while abstainers are more inclined to completely avoid or give up something. Take a simple example: You’re trying to shed a few pounds that you put on over the long cold winter, but your partner just made a fresh batch of your favorite chocolate chip cookies—your Achilles heel when it comes to comfort food. If you’re a moderator, you’ll ration yourself to only two, and if you’re an abstainer, you’ll avoid them altogether because you know once you start, you’ll never stop.
As a recovering alcoholic, I have no difficulty aligning myself with the ‘abstainers’, but I happen to be married to a ‘moderator’, so I get a daily reminder of what life looks like on the other side of the fence. There are definitely times when my “all or nothing” approach to life seems excessive and unfathomable to my wife, but to be perfectly honest, being an abstainer is far easier for me because I only have to make a decision one time. This means I don’t have to waste the mental energy involved in constantly reevaluating the “when” or the “how many”. And that’s why I totally identify with the quote that Gretchen provides from the great Samuel Johnson: “Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.”
This past weekend I celebrated my 18th year of being clean and sober, and every year I come up to that anniversary is typically a time of reflection. I am also quite fortunate in that I’m able to travel across the country giving talks to various groups on “How To Build Resiliency Into Your Life.” Gretchen Rubin’s book has really got me thinking about how my life as an ‘abstainer’ has contributed to my resiliency, and I can clearly see some dominant themes at play during these past 18 years.
The enemy lies within
It really doesn’t take much to set me off course, and if anything is going to throw a wrench into the works, it’s more than likely my own twisted thinking. Given enough time and freewill, I am able to convince myself of almost anything, and it’s usually in the guise of “logic”. Another great quote in Rubin's book is one from Benjamin Franklin: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." The gravest threat for me to go completely off the rails is not that I have the occasional stumble, but rather, it’s the potential for me to self-sabotage immediately following that stumble by convincing myself that I’ve already screwed it up, so what’s the point now. Even when everything is going great, I have to be vigilant not to fall into the “I deserve a reward” trap.
Forget the now for now
My most effective strategy to get through any adversity, be it the desire to pick up a drink or a drug, a period of depression or anxiety, or any acute stress for that matter, is to remind myself that I only have to make it through the day. If I can accept that, the next step is to put up a temporary roadblock or a distraction to move past the immediate discomfort. I typically rely on my “10-minute rule”. For instance, say I’m on a crowded subway when I’m confronted by a debilitating panic attack. I can feel my fingertips tingling, my heart racing, and my skin becoming clammy. That's when I take myself out of the moment and I put all my concentration into how I’ll feel ten minutes from now. More often than not, by the time the ten minutes elapses, I’ve moved on from what had been causing me anxiety in the moment of crisis. As a long distance runner, I frequently draw on this strategy in the latter stages of a marathon, when everything in my brain is telling me to stop. I pull myself out of the moment, and I envision what it will feel like to cross the finish line, and the pride I’ll feel when I look back on yet another successful battle through physical adversity.
Say it aloud if you want it to be real
I’m a big believer in accountability as a means to keeping on track. I’ve found that if I am setting a goal or trying to adopt a new behavior, the more people I tell about this, the greater my possibility for success. I’m speaking from the heart when I say that I owe a great deal of my sobriety to all the people around me who know about my battles with drugs and alcohol. I think the same can be said if you’re on a diet—there is some intangible force that keeps us ‘honest with ourselves’ when we are open, or transparent with others.
The pursuit of the happiness drug
When it comes to happiness, I think we’re all addicts, and it’s in the pursuit of this elusive drug, that we reveal whether we fall into the ‘moderator’ or ‘abstainer’ camp. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to define ‘happiness’, as there are as many definitions as there are people in this world. Maybe the easiest way of defining it is to look at the opposite of ‘happiness’. There are those who say the opposite of happiness is ‘acceptance’ or ‘accommodation’, and the American entrepreneur Chip Conley would suggest that it may in fact be ‘curiosity’.
For me, it’s an embodiment of all those things, and I would go further by saying that happiness is intrinsically connected to the idea of ‘hope’. And I think it’s my inclination, or faith in ‘hope’—definitely a future-centric outlook on life—which causes me to question that Buddhist principle of living in the moment. I guess the way that I’ve reconciled my belief in ‘hope’ with the twelve-step philosophy of living one-day-at-a-time, is to in some way qualify that future mentality by only projecting within the current day.
For me, resiliency has a lot to do with learning to love the “long game”—teaching myself to appreciate what is known as the slow release reward. In finding the strength to step away from the ever-present lure of immediate gratification, I build the resiliency I need to weather the more taxing periods of adversity.
I invite you to take a minute to examine the habits you’re trying to incorporate into your life—When confronted with temptation, self-doubt, or adversity, are you more inclined to be a ‘moderator’ or an ‘abstainer’? You might just be surprised what discover about yourself.