When it comes to “bad” health behaviors like smoking, imbalanced eating (e.g., excessively or not enough, opting for poor quality foods lacking nutritious value, lack of exercise), most of us know they are not healthy behaviors. But, we are really good at rationalizing in defense of holding on to these behaviors: because they feel good or they are convenient, or they aren’t the worst possible vices, or we will all die someday and we just want to enjoy life, or at least they are not hurting anyone else... Although we have years of scientific evidence [1, 2, 3] showing us just how dangerous these behaviors are, we still do it. Why? Well, perhaps these decisions aren’t always rationally-based, instead they are shaped by emotion. Many of these behaviors provide a sense of temporary relief, comfort, and even escape from otherwise challenging emotional life events. The emotional reactions that shape how we think about our health are deeply ingrained in us, based in evolutionary habits, and often beyond conscious awareness .
But, what if we could exploit these unconscious patterns and use the emotional nature of health-related behaviors to our benefit?
Allow me to share a personal anecdote, which I have touched upon in a past blog post. When my mother passed away, my father suddenly became a single father, solely responsible for raising and supporting my brother (then, 12 years old) and I (6 years old). Having recently emigrated from Iran to the United States, my father had to work several jobs to support our family. I often think back on these years in awe of my father’s determination in the face of so much challenge and suffering.
Prior to my mother’s illness, both of my parents smoked cigarettes daily. Like a lot of smokers, this was a social practice for them, a communal habit shared among their friends and in the workplace. However, once my mother passed, my father was faced with the reality of mortality and the extent to which his children depended on him for survival. So, my father vowed to quit smoking the day my mother passed. And he did it. COLD TURKEY. Almost 30 years later, my father has never smoked another cigarette in his life.
Looking back, I can understand my father’s journey as an adaptation of the Buddhist practice of “Dedication of Merit.” There are many ways to describe this practice, but simply stated: it is a practice of living our lives as an offering to others, honoring others in our actions and thoughts. My father is by no means a Buddhist monk, he has probably never even heard of this practice. But he somehow intuitively applied this strategy to inform his personal journey. By dedicating the effort of his smoking cessation to honor his deceased wife and two living children, my dad was driven by a greater motivating purpose. This ultimately gave him the momentum to override those deeply ingrained emotional reactions and beliefs that supported his smoking habit, and succeed in overturning this behavior altogether.
Next time you find yourself facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge, dedicating the effort of your hard work in honor of someone else may give you an opportunity to focus and direct your energy in a more powerful way. You can practice the dedication of merit in a daily meditation: “I dedicate the merit of this day to _____.” You can choose to honor loved ones or someone in crisis. In the tradition of many Buddhist dedications, you can even extend this dedication to all beings everywhere.
It’s important to note that dedication of merit is not only limited to contexts where we call upon others to give us purpose in our efforts, but also to share our in our successes and joys. In my next post, I will describe how this practice is also used to extend positive experiences.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC. (2008). Smoking-attributable mortality, years of potential life lost, and productivity losses--United States, 2000-2004. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 57(45), 1226.
2. Corrao, G., Bagnardi, V., Zambon, A., & La Vecchia, C. (2004). A meta-analysis of alcohol consumption and the risk of 15 diseases. Preventive Medicine, 38(5), 613-619.
3. Masters, R. K., Reither, E. N., Powers, D. A., Yang, Y. C., Burger, A. E., & Link, B. G. (2013). The impact of obesity on US mortality levels: the importance of age and cohort factors in population estimates. American Journal of Public Health, 103(10), 1895-1901.
4. Marteau, T. M., Hollands, G. J., & Fletcher, P. C. (2012). Changing human behavior to prevent disease: the importance of targeting automatic processes. Science, 337(6101), 1492-1495.