Full text of Jonathan Bricker on The Secret to Self Control at TEDxRainier conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – The secret to self control by Jonathan Bricker at TEDxRainier
Let me tell you about my mom. My mom was 42 years old when I was born, and she started exercising for the first time in her life. She started by running around the block, and then she started doing 5K races, and then she started doing 10K races. And after that, she ran a marathon, and after that, my mom did a Triathalon. By the time she was 57 years old, my mom was trekking uphill to the base-camp of Mt. Everest.
Let me tell you about my dad. When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to science classes. He was also my calculus teacher in high school. I wanted to crawl under the desk. I learned something important from my mom: The value of health. And I learned something important from my dad: The value of science. And these two values have guided me on my trek through life, and they’ve helped me appreciate an epidemic that we are all facing. And it’s not Ebola.
Instead, it is the epidemic of unhealthy living. A half billion people worldwide are obese. And you would think that 50 years after the first U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of tobacco was published that we’d be beyond the problem of smoking. Today, a billion people worldwide use tobacco. Tobacco and obesity are two of the most preventable causes of premature death. Solving these problems is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. We engage in unhealthy behaviors because of our genetics, because of brain neuro transmitters, because of environmental influences such as peers and the media. Each of those pieces of the puzzle are not things that you and I can solve on our own.
But there is one piece of this puzzle that may hold the key: Our choices about what we do with our cravings to engage in addictive behaviors like smoking or overeating. Our choices.
There is a new science of self-control that may hold the key to reversing these epidemics. It’s called willingness. Willingness means allowing your cravings to come and to go, while not acting on them by smoking or eating unhealthy. But actually, I’m not talking about willpower and I’m not talking about power through your cravings. Instead, I’m talking about a different notion of cravings that looks like this: Dropping the struggle with your cravings. Opening up to them, letting them be there, and making peace with them.
Now at this point you may be very skeptical. I was, when I first heard about it years ago. A friend of mine came to me with a book on willingness. He said, “Jonathan, this book will change your life forever!”
And I said “Oh, okay… yeah, I’ll check it out.”
So I went through it and thought, “Nah, this is a bunch of psycho-babble” and tossed it aside. Until some years later when my wife brought me to a workshop on willingness at the University of Washington, and I was blown away. So then I read the book, and then I read a lot of books on willingness, and I got trained in it, and what I learned was that willingness is part of acceptance in the acceptance and commitment therapy approach to behavior change. It’s a broad approach to behavior change that’s being used to help people with anxiety disorders, with addictions — even some innovative companies are now using it to help improve their employees’ performance and reduce their stress.
Now, to understand why I was blown away, you have to understand the world I live in. In my research world, a common way you help people quit smoking and lose weight is that you teach them to avoid their cravings. Avoid thinking about smoking, distract yourself from food cravings.
There’s a song from a Broadway show that captures this perfectly, and it goes like this:
When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head,
Don’t feel those feelings, hold them in instead.
Turn it off like a light switch — just go click.
We do it all the time when you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t seem right.
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light and turn them off.
We all live in this world, we’re the song, we keep hearing “turn off the bad feelings.”
Now, let’s take a look at these cookies. They just came out of the oven — ooh, they are so good! Ah, they’re so delicious. Mmmm, just feel that craving to eat those cookies. They’re lovely, they’re so good. Now, turn it off! Turn it off! You want those cookies even more now, right? You see the futility of trying to turn it off — you can’t turn it off! And maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you can leave the light on.
Here is how: My research lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, here in Seattle, is conducting randomized clinical trials to see if showing people how to be willing to have their cravings is effective for quitting smoking. We are conducting trials in face-to-face interventions and a telephone quit smoking hotline and a website called webquit.org and in an app called SmartQuit. These technologies have the potential to reach millions of people with interventions that could save their lives. That’s pretty amazing.
Let me tell you about the data. When you pool together the results from six clinical trials, all six that have been published to date, including trials conducted by our colleagues, what we see is that for the people who were assigned to the avoidance approach — avoiding your cravings — some of them quit smoking, and it varied depending on the study. However, for the people who were randomly assigned to the willingness condition, twice as many quit smoking. Very, very encouraging.
Now, of course, the data only tell us one small part of the story. So, to help you see willingness in action, I’m going to weave together experiences I’ve had in counseling people for quitting smoking. And I’ll together refer to them as one person that we’ll just call Jane. So, as is typical of people who come in who want help for quitting smoking, Jane was a 45-year-old person who started smoking when she was a teenager. She tried to quit smoking several times and was not successful. So she was very skeptical that anything “new” was going to be helpful to her for quitting, and yet she was really hopeful that this time would be different.