So after 2,5 years of applying several lifestyle changes I guess I can say that I pretty much have my physical health under control now. Something I’m very very happy with! I in fact visited my lung specialist last week and she said my lung function is still improving even though I continue to off-set my medication. I already got rid of the antibiotics that I was taking on a daily basis and I’m now trying to reduce the use of the inhaler that I still use in the morning and evening.

With my physical health pretty much sorted out I’ve decided to take on a new challenge: adopting a more sustainable lifestyle! Personal health & environmental health are closely related I’ve come to realize. And now that my own health is doing so well, I might as well take it beyond the personal level. I’ve already ‘started’ a couple of months ago, but man it’s hard… I actually thought that it (behavior change) would get easier the more you do it, but it’s a challenge every. single. time.

Along the way I came to the realization that it’s especially hard, because I suffer from a certain ‘mental condition’ every now and again: cognitive dissonance.

It turns out that a lot of people suffer from this annoying mental illness so I figured it might be nice to dedicate a blog to it. Especially since treatment seems possible 🙂

Cognitive dissonance – what is it?!

The so-called ‘Cognitive Dissonance Theory’  states that people feel mental distress and discomfort (dissonance) when they behave in a way that is contradicting their beliefs. An example: most smokers know that what they do is unhealthy but still continue to smoke (they’ll tell themselves that there are many other things that cause cancer or that 1 or 2 more cigarettes won’t make the difference etc.).

Although I’ve never smoked, I can relate to doing things that have a bad influence on my health while knowing it isn’t good for me. I for one would drink alcohol (and sometimes still do) although I know my lungs and overall health regret it the day after. I simply justify my behavior by coming up with different beliefs about my behavior (drinking alcohol in this case). I’ll for example tell myself that it’s also ‘healthy’ to have a good time with friends/family by drinking wine or beer together. Or before I started eating plant-based I’d tell myself that taking animal foods out of my diet would not be a good idea, because I’d make myself social outcast. That would not be good for my mental health and I therewith justified continuing eating meat and diary.

At some point I came to the conclusion that excuses such as the above blocked the improvement of my health and I decided to just start experimenting without thinking about it too much. And funny enough, by ‘simply’ changing my behavior, and sticking to it for a while it turned into a new habit.

That’s all very nice and well, but I had a huge personal incentive to improve my health, so that also made it somewhat easier to actually start changing my behavior. I find that doing good for the environment is more indirect and therewith harder. And what doesn’t help -in my eyes- is that when talking about sustainable behavior it’s most of the time about doing less or quitting certain things: driving less, flying less, producing less waste, less shopping etc. It seems to be all about sacrificing…and I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to sacrifice per se and it doesn’t help me either, it only discourages me.

And then I remembered something…

Having fun = sustainable!

When I started out with my health-experiments -such as for example the adoption of a plant-based diet and cold training- I realized somewhere along the way that I would only be able to turn these things into a habit if I would not associate my lifestyle change with the loss of something (hence, sacrifice). I was a huge cheese addict, so when I started experimenting with a plant-based diet, that felt like a major loss. The new behavior would have to provide me with some degree of fun to turn my experiment into a sustainable habit. ‘Fun’ might sound simplistic, but I’m convinced it’s a well-kept secret behind habit creation.

I believe that we – humans-  are trying very hard to behave as calculating, rational creatures (and fair enough, some people are doing a great job at it), but I think most of us (me included) are simply playful animals. Nothing more, nothing less. We just want to have a good time, feel attracted to beautiful things and people and we try hard to avoid pain, hardship and the ugly. I guess that also explains why we have a problem sticking to new habits that suggest we do less of something we enjoy.

So when I came home one day after feeling absolutely miserable in the supermarket because I had no idea what to cook for myself after experimenting with a plant-based diet for about a week, I decided I had to find a way to make this lifestyle change feel like a surplus instead of a sacrifice. Doing a cooking course in Italy had been an item on my bucket list for quite some time and after that disappointing experience in the supermarket I decided I would treat myself to a vegan cooking course! That turned out to be my magic recipe to mix some fun into the challenging undertaking of changing my diet and it dragged me through the crucial transition months. And the cool thing is, once you’ve turned something into a habit it’s much easier to stick to it.

If you can’t beat your ‘nature’, join it

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can define a lifestyle change solely as a sacrifice, but we can also ‘frame’ it as a window of opportunity. If we decide to focus on the new chances the lifestyle change brings about and find ways to entertain ourselves during the transition we increase our chances of creating a new habit.

Who am I talking to?!

I guess myself… Am I a sustainability hypocrite that suffers from cognitive dissonance? Hmm yes… I’m still doing (too) many things that harm the environment, whilst preaching sustainable behavior to myself (and people around me).

But I now know what’s up next. I’ll have to go out and turn my sustainability quest into a fun experience…


To be continued…