Thinking religiously

Posted on May 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm

What a treat to be invited to BJ Fogg’s Mobile Health event to talk about something that gets us fired up – forging healthier habits.

While BJ has practically made his own religion out of the concept of tiny habits – meaning that baby steps rather than big leaps are the key to successful interventions – we thought it might be interesting to flip that concept on its head and think about the power of religion to drive habits.

After all, we do things like check our text messages or apply eye cream or follow our favorite teams “religiously” – could just invoking this sense of doing something faithfully make us more likely to actually follow through on things that we might not otherwise do?

Science says yes. According to recently published research in Psychological Science, people are better able to resist their desires when thinking about God. That notion of “giving it up” for something that is bigger than ourselves can have the same impact, even for those who self-identify as atheists.

Part of it is about not getting caught and punished, no doubt. But part of it may also be about keeping true to an internal moral compass – and about keeping the promises we make to ourselves and to our loved ones. That’s the driver behind the concept of the pledge to drive healthier behaviors – when people have made a public commitment to do something, like get a recommended colorectal cancer screening, they are more likely to follow through on their actions.

Of course, there’s plenty of research out there that shows that having a sense of spirituality acts as a buffer to the things that drag down health and productivity. Plus there is plenty of research that’s been done to try to explain why people with a religious bent often have better health than those who don’t (theories range from the physical act of getting out of the house for services to a enjoying a healthy social network – no word on the power of the potluck dinner).

We’re not suggesting that religion is the answer, but there are certain mindful activities that can help curb the often careless, sometimes reckless behaviors that can have a negative effect on our health and wellbeing. Simple gestures, like quietly counting to 10 before blowing your top in anger, or dropping a few coins in the swear jar as needed, or just being grateful for what we have instead of overindulging may have a big impact.

And while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to put in a divine request for a sunny weekend (and maybe a better a*s).

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