How To Deal With Your Automatic Self When Trying To Change

The ambiguity effect suggests that people prefer to choose an option with a known probability of a favorable outcome over an option where the probability is unknown

As I recently moved to Brazil I was confronted again and again, with what is called the Ambiguity Effect. It states that people tend to favor decisions where the odds are known. When you are unaware of this tendency it is likely that you stick to a vicious circle leading to nothing but the familiar. In my case, as everything was new, I got stuck plenty of times. In your case, if you finally have decided to change something in your life, you might still choose the non-disruptive way, not because it is the best decision, but because it feels safe. I believe it is time to enter the world of the unknown.

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive biases could be described system failures in our human reasoning. Where a rational form of reasoning is usually preferred, cognitive biases make us believe we are rational when we are not. The ambiguity effect is one of them.

This one is particularly interesting because to get anywhere in life there are plenty of moments you will need to deal with unfamiliar situations. When your mind is screaming for familiarity and comfort, you should actually go where you feel the most resistance. Even when anything from a red head to vomiting proves your hardship.

Slightly kidding there, though it is essential for any change to happen to do what you didn’t do before. Nevertheless, the world the average western citizen lives in, there seems to be so much to lose that there is always a reason to choose the familiar path.

Educate Yourself

Regardless of what you think you might lose, I know the first step to beat this paradox is to get familiar with the unknown. Educate yourself on subjects that are relevant to what you want to do different, talk or look up people online that are in similar situations like you, and start questioning everything you assume normal. All of this information will enable you to shed a little more light in the darkness ahead.

Obvious as this advice may seem, the more contradictory the decision you want to make in your life, the more paralyzing the ambiguity effect can be.

You’d better remember at this moment then, that there are 7 billion people living on this planet. It’s therefore almost impossible that what you want to do hasn’t been done before. The trick is to filter all the information that is at your disposal and you might realize that this is a non-argument.

Until the same source of information gives you arguments that justify your paralysis, and you’re back at the beginning.

Get Familiar With the Process and Fail More

The clue therefore doesn’t lie in acquiring the relevant information, but in getting familiar with the process itself.

As soon as you start trying to realize a lifestyle according to your rules you are bound to fail. And to be honest, the sooner the better. The more you fail the more you will learn, and the sooner you will get it right.

Another thing to remember is that as soon as the ambiguity effect starts strangling your existence – that even though you don’t see it right now – when you make a decision other opportunities will arise. After however, not before you have made that decision.

Dealing With Ambiguity

I recently gave up on validating my physical therapy diploma in Brazil. I had a hard time finding the right phone numbers of the person responsible in this process. My previous experiences with Brazilian bureaucracy, the unclear requirements for the necessary documentation, and the fact that every single person I reached on the phone didn’t really know what I was talking about. I gave into the ambiguity.

When I tried again later on, I knew what was coming and wasn’t set back by the chaos of not knowing as much. I found the right phone number, reached the right person in two calls and a couple of hours later I was sitting at his desk. He was kind and forthcoming, and explained exactly how and what I had to do.

On a similar note people tend to conceive my dietary choice as restricting. Since I aim to eat a whole foods plant-based diet, I avoid all animal products and if possible processed food. Go into the average kitchen and there will be little left to eat. However, as soon as you look through my eyes you will notice the abundance of food and combinations available.

Not before you have deliberately chosen a direction, you will become aware of new opportunities.

roadsign-in-snow

I believe it is essential to realize that you never know all the parts that make up a decision, and that past experiences are usually far from sufficient to provide a solid foundation for future decisions. The only way to figure out what works, is to try, fail, learn, and try again.

How To Live Long and Free From Disease

In these places, people do headstands, walk large distances in mountainous terrain, take care of their gardens, drive cars, do yoga, herd sheep, fish daily, take care of their farms, and assist with heart surgery. All at the age of 90, or sometimes even over 100 years old.

In his book “The Blue Zones”, Dan Buettner describes the areas in the world where people live the longest and free of disease. So far there have been 5 locations identified as Blue Zones: Okinawa (Japan), Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), and Loma Linda (US).

Longevity hotspots
Longevity hot spots around the world

Blue Zones were named by demographers initially collecting data from the Barbagian region in Sardinia. In a previous blog I already mentioned them, and my fascination for the knowledge derived from studying these communities. So much, that I decided to name a category on this blog after them. To me it seems that the key to health and happiness lies in what a lot of these places express. At the same time, there is a connection with everything I find interesting about health, body, mind and behavior. What is most appealing of all however, is that the factors that seem to contribute to longevity, are far from rocket science.

Even tough, these Blue Zones are located thousands of kilometers apart from each other, they have nine distinct features in common:

1. Move

I played soccer until the age of 18, than I went to the gym 4 to 5 times a week. After, I started rock climbing weekly while doing yoga, hiking and running in between. Nowadays, I have less opportunities to climb, but still I run, go to the gym and do yoga.

What do Blue Zoners do? They just move, they usually do not go to the gym or play tennis. Rather, their physical activity is inherent to their daily lives. They walk during their work, to friends, or to get groceries. Sometimes they cover distances of more than 5 kilometers by foot, just to get to a market. Because of this, they burn up to 5 times as many calories in non-exercise based activity, and seem to live 7-10 years longer than average.

This reminds me of when I started working. My life changed from a medium sedentary (student) lifestyle, to walking, standing and showing exercises to clients all day. The result? I lost 3 kilos of body weight without even being aware of it.

2. Purpose

Do you know your purpose? Do you know why you are waking up every morning? What gives you energy, regardless of the amount of effort you have to put in?

It seems that the Blue Zoners know this. It might be fishing, taking care of their loved ones, or training for a sports event. More over, these people are able to tell you what their purpose is. To be able to both live purposefully, and express it, increases life expectancy with 7 years more, than somebody who cannot.

3. Stress management

Concluding my last period of travelling I wrote down a couple of things I wanted to change in my life. One of them was introducing a moment in the day where I would take time to do nothing. It evolved in to 20 minutes of meditation after I wake up. Sometimes I manage to take a moment in the afternoon as well.

During this time there is space to reflect, relax, and breath deeply. The Blue Zoners have their own versions of this. It may be enjoying a happy hour with friends, taking a daily nap in the case of the Ikarians, or taking a moment to remember their ancestors in the case of the Okinawans.

4. Eat plants

Almost a year ago, I changed my diet to be entirely plant-based. I do not find any hardship maintaining it, and feel great and cannot recommend it enough.

Vegetables and Fruits

However, statistics show that diets don’t work. 90% of the people that start a new diet have quit before the 7 month mark.

Why did my change last? I believe that I was quickly able to adapt this new lifestyle. Blue Zoners eat a largely plant based diet as well. Not because they feel like it is better than eating another diet, it is just inherent to their lifestyle. The majority of their calories come from vegetables, nuts, and legumes. These foods are rich in antioxidants that help reduce the aging process going on in all of us.

5. Alcohol in moderation

I quit alcohol a while ago, every now and then I would have a glass of wine. I would mostly notice it’s effects soon. Usually though, I would feel bad right away.

The Blue Zoners nevertheless, seem to be going well on a glass or two per day. Being it wine or sake. The advantage the Sardinians for exam[ple, have over me, is that their wine is made from the grapes that grow in their own garden. Where what is available to me, is highly industrialized. On the other hand there are the 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda that abstain entirely from alcohol for religious reasons.

6. Eat in moderation

How I love my plates stacked over the top with food. Oats, loaded with fruits, nuts and seeds, or a plate of rices with beans and vegetables so high I cannot see the wall in front

Plant based meal
I like my plate full

of me.

It seems this is not what I should do if I want to make it to a hundred. The so called 80% rule, seems the way to go. Okinawans even have an adage for it (something they say before they start to eat their meal)

hara hachi bu (eat until you are 80% full)

7. Put your loved ones first

Here I am, for a couple of years already at least a 1000km away from my family and best friends. If that wasn’t enough, there is now over 14000km between us. This does not mean however, that I do not feel connected to them. Nevertheless, Blue Zoners tend to this subject a little different.

They usually live in communities with most of their family around, and take care of each other, regardless of the physical condition. Nursing homes, senior center, and assisted living facilities, hold little meaning in their societies.

8. Stay connected

Are you running from home, to the bus, to work, and back again. Day in day out only with the occasional stop at the supermarket, a restaurant, or a sports club?

It looks like there are more efficient ways to getting old and avoiding disease. Staying connected both physically and spiritually seems to do great things. The Blue Zoners are generally part of a faith-based community. People who take this seriously and engage 4 times a month, seem to live between 4 and 14 years longer.

9. Surround yourself with the right people

I have been lucky to have been supported by my friends and family in countless ways. Most of that I only realized after it happened. The fact they did however, allowed me to stay strong when it came to making lifestyle changes, or pursuing my dreams.

Longevity seems to be better achievable as well, when you are not alone. Surrounding yourself with people that engage in similar behavior makes it easier for you to do the same. At the same time, securing strong relationships in times of hardship.

And then?

You can tie any of these factors to longevity and build an interesting story around each one. That’s what the $20 billion diet industry and $21 billion health club industry do in their effort to convince us that if we take the right pill, eat the right food, or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight, and live longer. But these strategies don’t work.

…The big aha for me is how the agents of longevity reinforce each other for the long therm.

Dan Buettner

What I find most fascinating about the knowledge derived from these Blue Zones, is that none of the people living there were trying to implement them in to their life. They usually had, or were still living hard lives. They do not necessarily have access to vitamin pills, gyms, and nutrition coaches. Rather, they are just living according to the opportunities and limitations of their environment.

However, in our work hard, play hard society nowadays there seems little space for moderation, enjoying the moment, and being with loved ones. Nevertheless, these things all seem to be key in living long and healthy.

Now if you, like me, and most of the people live in cities, where the air quality is bad, where there are always cars racing around you, where the greenest thing is the plant in your windowsill, and the sky counts 3 stars because there is so much light pollution. What do you do?

Hit the subscribe button down below, and stay tuned for more content on how to use this, and other knowledge part of your lifestyle. Regardless of where you live.

 

Further reading:
Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (p. 293). National Geographic Society.
Dan Buettner @ TedMed 2011

 

Superhuman

For a while already, I have been fascinated by the so called Blue Zones. Places like Okinawa in Japan, and the island of Sardinia in Italy. Here, people live the longest, with very little years fighting of diseases. The life these people live, seems to be the contrary of what is generally perceived as important in western culture.

Our culture mandates the importance of work, engagement, money, to spend it on the next big thing afterwards. We are developing a better computer and phone every day. There are cameras that can watch straight through our body and there are chips we can put under our skin monitoring everything that goes on in our bodies.

We admire the quickest athlete, the fearless soldier, the innovative businessman and the confident leader. At the same time, there are people fascinated by eternal life, looking for possibilities to freeze their dead body, so it can be revived later on. With exoskeletons we might be able to walk forever as long as our neurological system is intact, and we have created the first piece of meat from a petry-dish already.

Not long and we could be called super humans, but to what end? Does one really live a more fulfilling life than somebody who does not engage with all these activities? If you feel like your purpose is figuring out the next step in human innovation, go ahead. However, is what we perceive as innovation, truly innovation?

This eagerness in developing us as humans, has already been catching up with us. Pollution, hours spend in heavy traffic and depression are on the rise. However, there are some communities that seem to have been living the solution without doing any of the above.

Perks of these communities are; people tend to have a sense of purpose, they eat a largely plant-based diet, have strong relationships, sleep enough, do low intensity exercise over long periods, and they are part of a spiritual or faith-based society. At this point I wonder therefore, why do we pursue the fully chipped superhuman, when one can have equal results without all the superfluous effort?

I believe it to be a matter of perspective. What does eternal life really mean? We experience so many sick years nowadays, that when I manage to live to a hundred without getting chronically ill, that could be perceived as eternal already. The idea that we can outsmart nature is another core concept I could only believe if I blind my eyes forever. Plants and trees survived Chernobyl, we did not. We might kill all the animals, including ourselves, but there will always be this tiny being, adapted to the conditions we have created, here after re-evolving in to something new.

Lost in the process of going forward, becoming a “better” self, developing and innovating, it is very easy to forget what already is. The idea of what a superhuman is, you can define for yourself. I can see sunsets kilometers away, I can train my brain to do the most complicated formulas or understand 7 languages at the same time, I can hear an insane amount of frequencies, sense the smallest piece of sand, I can experience connections that are invisible, I can laugh, and I can walk up straight for up to 110 years. I ask therefore, am I not a super human already?

Behavioral Change Step 1: Increasing Awareness

I am frequently reflecting on how I have in the past months come to certain realizations and perspective changes. When I notice that something does not fit or feel right, the first step is, to become aware of it’s origin. After, there is the challenge of fully realizing this new knowledge in to an alternative mindset.

I thought it would be interesting to break down this process, that I myself have gone through so many times already. From becoming aware to integrating new views, hopefully inspiring you to do the same when you think it necessary.

In this first part I will explain how I try to increase my own awareness to make me see things I would like to view, do, or feel differently about. For me this is the first step to adjusting perspective. Without awareness I would just keep living a misty reality where everything seems devised and uncontrollable.

I believe that awareness comes with regular discomfort. Accepting that I know nothing, even when I think I do, enables me to learn new outlooks. When I go out of my way to talk to different people, trying things I never did before and saying yes to the unknown all provoke this widening of my view.

Also, I try to keep questioning the world around me. Even when things seem totally obvious it is all the more important to do so. As things go, that is the moment I get comfortable in my current reality. Even though, I recreate my reality every second. This means that when I start believing in something to be the way it is, it inhibits my capacity to adjust. I start living an irrelevant version of a past me that has nothing to do with my current state of affairs.

Where it can be hard to actively practice awareness, there are often experiences that we can use to grow up on. They can be as simple as becoming aware that it is hard to cut with the backside of a knife, or the moment that our partner is angry with us. Both of these experiences can induce a contemplative state that might change our outlook to how we use a knife or what kind of person we are in relation to somebody else.

Furthermore, reading books, travelling, changing jobs, and trying a new sport, amongst other things, might all induce a similar reflective state. I think that everything we do is actually changing our perspective continuously. However, we tend to be so stuck in our habits that we need a relatively strong stimulus to let go of our past selves. Still, if I stay present in everything I do, it is easier to realize it’s meaning.

In my own case, travelling really helped me with shifting perspective. I was definitely aware of how certain things were not making me happy or limiting my feelings and outlook. At that time though, I did not have the capacity to fully realize the cause. Upon entering a different environment there was a reduction of stimuli pulling me in different directions. This freed up space to do something with the thoughts already floating around. This calm presence with my thoughts turned out to be the missing link.

Where I summed up a couple of things that might induce a change of outlook before. There are also certain things that you can do to stay more present. I believe for me the easiest and at the same time the most underestimated one, is to literally do nothing. When there is nothing but me and my mind present, stuff already starts sorting itself out. To increase the power of these moments I sometimes use breathing exercises or meditation to calm my mind and become even more present with my thoughts.

To sum this all up I think that to increase my awareness, a questioning and accepting attitude is a prerequisite. Where it always starts with one question, usually there are a lot to follow. In the meantime there remains the challenge to not get lost in the maze that is our material life. Rather, developing awareness time and time again to get to a more fundamental level.