Whether it’s gorging on junk food, smoking cigarettes, or binge-watching Netflix in lieu of exercise, bad habits are just part of the human experience. But what is it about negative behaviors, products, and lifestyle choices that make them so attractive? And why are they so addicting?
Scientifically speaking, it seems logical that humans would work to avoid things that negatively affect our health and lifespan. However, that’s not generally the case. The good news is that it’s possible to change your negative behaviors to optimize health and safety, at both the individual and community levels.
The health of the planet is also at risk thanks to the negative behaviors of humanity. For instance, human activity over recent years has helped to perpetuate the greenhouse gas effect, such as vehicle emissions from excessive driving. And in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we have visibly seen how less driving contributes to cleaner air.
That knowledge may not be enough to help keep emissions levels low once social distancing measures are lifted, especially as daily driving is an ingrained, learned behavior. Let’s take a look at the science behind those things that are unhealthy for us, such as polluting the air unnecessarily, and consider solutions to dropping those bad habits once and for all.
Bad Habits and Learned Behaviors
Air pollution is effectively a scourge on public health, causing such conditions as lung and respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Scientific American reports that about 7 million people across the globe die from air pollution-related causes every year. Further, air pollution may have even contributed to higher COVID death rates in areas where air pollution is considered severe.
Despite the visible negative repercussions of air pollution and climate change, however, the problem is massive in scope, and the solutions aren’t simple. Yes, it’s easy to encourage citizens to drive less, or to buy products locally to cut down on emissions for shipping. But the reality is far more complex, encompassing financial considerations, available infrastructure, and individual learned behavior.
It is in the realm of learned behavior where our bad habits and behaviors are kept alive, at least on a psychological level. According to Psychology Today, “once a habit is established, you will never completely ‘unlearn’ it.” That’s one reason why it’s so difficult to drop our bad habits, even when we know it’s bad for the planet, or for our bodies. Interestingly, many of our strongest habits and learned behaviors were cultivated during childhood.
Convenience Food: A Public Health Crisis
One childhood habit that tends to follow us into adulthood, for better or worse, is what we eat, how much, and how often. Childhood obesity has become a public health crisis in recent years. While the condition stems in part from a sedentary lifestyle, the prevalence of food deserts and poverty, pure and simple eating habits also play a role. It’s a fairly simple concept: if you encourage healthy food consumption and keep junk food out of your child’s diet, he or she will have healthier eating habits as adults. Healthy snacks can include low-fat yogurt, whole-grain crackers, and fresh fruit.
Along with healthy eating, regular physical activity should be an important part of life for children around the world, no matter income level. Research indicates that team sports may be particularly beneficial for young people, positively impacting physical as well as mental health. In fact, participation in youth interscholastic sports has been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease, improved weight control, and better psychological functioning.
The Market’s Role in Feeding Our Bad Habits
Some bad habits, such as a preference for junk food or the overindulgence in alcohol, are directly linked to your amygdala. Called your body’s “pleasure center,” your amygdala regulates emotions and is essentially fueled by dopamine. In our modern world, there are many things, such as participation in team sports, that offer plenty of dopamine output without negative repercussions.
Unfortunately, our product and behavior choices aren’t always completely our own. For example, in a food desert, fresh and healthy foods are typically difficult to find, and you may have no choice but to purchase what’s available. In this way, the national market itself is unwittingly pushing you towards a different kind of learned behavior, where your health is undermined in favor of profit.
Of course, that’s nothing new in today’s America, where harmful items and materials are still being produced because they can make people money. Asbestos, for instance, causes more than 10,000 deaths in the U.S. every year, yet isn’t banned in the country. Instead, it can still be found in brake pads, various construction materials, and even makeup.
From air pollution to asbestos exposure, danger is essentially everywhere in our modern world. Interestingly, we humans tend to gravitate towards some of the most prolific dangers in society, in an effort to further stimulate our dopamine receptors. Yet as we continue to experience the effects of climate change and declining global public health firsthand, it may be time to eschew our bad habits for healthier ones.