Why do we do things that are bad for us despite knowing the risks?


I was reading a report recently on the dangers of eating too much and saw that someone had commented on it along the lines of:  “I’d rather eat whatever I wanted and die earlier than live a life denying pleasure.”

It sounds almost reasonable doesn’t it?  What’s the point of living a miserable life of denial when you can do what you want and just live a few years less?

However, I have two thoughts about this.  First of all,  you don’t have to deny yourself the pleasure of delicious food to stay fit and healthy.  It’s a case of re-educating your palate to enjoy less sugar and salt, learning about nutrition, getting creative in the kitchen and discovering the absolute joy of exercising.

I also suspect the person who commented is assuming that he will die suddenly and peacefully in his sleep instead of suffering a long, incapacitating illness where he will have more than plenty of time to reflect upon his choices. (by the way, I really do hope this person ends up living a long and happy life and when the time comes, he will pass away, peacefully in his sleep).

His comments though made me think about some of my own choices in life, my own bad habits – smoking and drinking too much and why we do things that are bad for us when we know the risks.  (By the way I’ve stopped smoking now and only drink in moderation)

My own life experience and working as a coach tells me that people have a ‘payoff’ of some kind for starting and continuing with a bad habit.

I started smoking because I thought it was cool.  In reality however, I suspect I just looked like someone who wanted to look cool without actually being cool!  I never ever felt comfortable smoking, it was like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t.  I only really enjoyed the first cigarette of the day,  the rest were just a bad habit which turned into an addiction and  became a crutch to fall back on in social situations.  Something to do with my hands, a distraction,  a literal smoke screen to stop other people from seeing how vulnerable I felt – or so I thought.

What may have benefited me was to look at the underlying reasons why I felt the need to look cool!  Who was I trying to impress and why?  What was missing within me that I was trying to cover up by holding a cigarette?

When I was doing my research for this article I found very little evidence of scientific research into the question of why we do things that are bad for us.  The only real study I could find was done by the University of Alberta in Canada.

According to researcher Dr. Cindy Jardine, knowing about the risks of a bad habit is not enough to motivate people to change and that until we get to the underlying reasons why people continue with a bad habit they are unlikely to change their behaviour.

Some of those underlying reasons could be, peer pressure,  a way to help you cope with your circumstances, rebellion, not liking being told what to do.

So, How Do We Stop bad habits?

Well, a question to ask yourself that may help is to ask yourself:  “Who do you want to BE?”

1.  Six years ago I asked myself this very same question. I decided I wanted to BE someone who was in charge of her life.  I wanted to BE free from addictions and from unhealthy relationships, and a stressful working environment.  I wanted to BE myself.

I also decided that I wanted to BE someone who looked after her health by following a balanced, nutritious and delicious diet and exercising regularly.  I wanted to BE someone who took good care of her body and her mind by ensuring I had adequate rest, relaxation and lots of fun.

2. Once I decided who I wanted to BE the next step was working out what I needed to do to BEcome that person. I took inspiration from others who were already fit and healthy and BEing in charge of their lives and I thought if they can do it, why can’t I?

I didn’t do all of this overnight…one thing kind of led to another and had a snowball effect.  For example I re-trained and became a life and career coach enabling me to leave a stressful working environment.   I quit smoking with the help of nicotine aids so I didn’t feel so breathless and so exercising became easier.   As I started to see the results of getting fitter I became more motivated and wanted to find out about nutrition.

My journey isn’t complete, I am still a work in process and  always will be but I’ve come a long way and feel amazingly proud of the fact that I have been made member of the month at my local Virgin Health Club.  Something, I would never have thought possible a few years ago!

So my question for you is:  Who do you want to BE?

POLL:  Please take a few moments to complete this survey.  It’s completely anonymous and may help you to find out the underlying reasons why you continue with a bad habit.  Thank you for your time. 🙂

Why do we keep doing things that are bad for us despite knowing the risks?


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~ by Sandstorm on October 13, 2009.

2 Responses to “Why do we do things that are bad for us despite knowing the risks?”

  1. Hi Janice

    A great post thank you and very pertinent to where I am at the moment. I too gave up smoking a few years ago but I am aware that I am still drinking too much and I would also like to lose weight. I know exactly how to do it but somehow I never quite get there! I will spend some time thinking about who I want to BE and see if that gives me some new insights and motivation.

    Alongside my current nutrition course I am reading a lot about motivation for change because I think knowing what changes to make is about 10% of the problem, actually making the changes is 90%!


  2. Hi Lucy,

    Good to hear your comments.

    I agree with you that making changes is the greater part of the problem. It can be easy, especially in the early stages of change, to take your eye off the goal or give in to that instant gratification.

    I got through that stage by challenging myself – so it wasn’t like anyone else telling me what I should do – I was telling myself that this is what I wanted for me. I found that once you start to see results from dropping a bad habit: e.g.: losing weight, feeling fitter etc.,then your motivation increases and it becomes a snowball effect. It all starts with that first step.

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