I haven’t had a drink since June 5, 2010 and quit a nasty chewing tobacco habit in 2006. Also in 2006, having never run more than 1/2 a mile in my life and weighing more than 300 pounds, I gave up my mostly sedentary lifestyle and went on to run three marathons (as well as ~25 half marathons) over the next four years.
But put a slice of pizza or a bowl of ice cream in front of me and you’d have to use a gun to get me to walk away. I suck at money. Despite all the studies that say I shouldn’t, my iPad is the first thing I reach for when I wake up and I am tethered to technology throughout the day. And, admittedly, running became decidedly less interesting without the finish-line beer; I have not been able to truthfully call myself a runner since finishing the New York City Marathon in 2010.
What does all this mean? It means that self control is a bitch, and now comes news that people with a lot of self control are happier:
As they go about their daily lives, people with a lot of self-control appear to generally be in higher spirits; in the long run, they’re happier with their lives. To explain why this would be so, the researchers conducted another online survey. What they figured out is that instead of constantly denying themselves, people high in self-control are simply less likely to find themselves in situations where that’s even an issue. They don’t waste time fighting inner battles over whether or not to eat a second piece of cake. They’re above such petty temptations. And that, it would seem, makes them happier … if still just a little bit sad.
Self control takes effort, and it’s better to view it as a battle of attrition instead of an all-or-nothing proposition. In other words, allow yourself to give in and fuck up, to sabotage your own efforts at self control and happiness, and you may find long-term success (says the guy fighting the urger to get a Starbucks scone after making the initial, good choice of the seasonal fresh fruit cup and black coffee for breakfast).
What Quitting Drinking Taught Me
It’s debatable whether or not I was an alcoholic. What was clear is that I wasn’t too happy with my life between 2009 and 2010 and it seemed like taking a break from drinking was the smart thing to do. There were some starts and stops but then, without really knowing whether it would stick, I had a single glass of champagne at an engagement party on June 5, 2010.
And not a drop since. I like to think that if I wanted to, I could become one of those people who has the occasional glass of wine. But right now, i don’t want to.
I didn’t do 12 steps or A.A., and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life going to meetings to talk sadly about what I had given up. Most of the past three years have been spent focussing on what I gained: a fiancee, clearer thoughts, a renewed passion for my work, less stress and a more positive outlook on life.
There are times when I’d love to have a drink, and I hate that awkward moment when I order an iced tea or a Diet Coke and get the dumfounded “You’re not drinking?” There are times when I miss the way that first and second glass of wine loosens the tension that has bulked up in your shoulders at the end of the long day. And my social life in radically different: I miss the idea of a long conversations over beers and burgers on a summer afternoon.
But the bottom line, and the ever-lingering thought when forced to confront the “one can’t hurt” dilemma, is the good times are still good when I pass on having a drink and the tough times, I know, only get tougher when my head gets clouded with six too many drinks. Am I never, ever going to drink again? I don’t know. But thinking about the decadent dinner we’ve had at Oya in Boston every year on June 5 since 2011 is usually more than enough to tamp down any momentary craving (incidentally, the last course of the 17-course omakase is always accompanied with the pictured glass of aged sake. it’s the only part I pass up).
A New Self-Control Challenge: Food
For the past few weeks I’ve been loosely following Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6 p.m. diet. The concept is simple: don’t worry about counting calories, crabs and grams of fat and instead eat a vegan diet that shuns processed foods before 6 p.m., then eat whatever you want after 6 p.m. (when most people are more likely to cheat on a diet). Bittman, who writes about food and food policy for the New York Times, argues that such a diet treats meat almost as a condiment and is better in tune with the way humans have evolved.
His book gives the basics of why it works, as well of loads of strategies you can use to adopt it. It also has 60+ recipes. i’ve tried about a dozen so far and all of them have been hits. The basic idea is once you train yourself to eat more whole grains and vegetables, meat becomes and afterthought. The obvious question is why not go vegan all the way? The simple answer is “I don’t want to.” I love meat: I love to cook it, love to order it and I love having the convenience of being able to go to restaurants, very few of which cater to people trying to eat a vegan diet.
And my relationship with meat has changed, in just the past few weeks. Now I find myself craving a smaller portion of a high-quality piece of meat (or poultry or fish) that has been expertly seasoned and prepared, as opposed to sandwich overflowing with shaved steak or a big, old slab of ribs. Beyond that, when I do slip up or even when I do eat meat as prescribed by Bittman’s strategy, I enjoy it more. Indulging in pizza with pepperoni for dinner is a lot less guilt-laden when you didn’t have a highly-processed bagel for breakfast and fries with your turkey club for lunch.
Do I cheat? Do I sometimes have meat at lunch and then try to have something vegan (or vegan-ish) for dinner to compensate? Of course. That’s the beauty of Bittman’s strategy: you can forgive yourself for the occasional slip up as long as you commit, on most days, to eating more plants and fewer animal products (for a much more elegant overview, see Bittman’s recent op/ed on part-time veganism or, better yet, just buy the book).
This isn’t the all-or-nothing self control people need to quit drinking or smoking, but it is the kind of self control that has made me happy.