Whenever I get into conversations with any of my friends who are into harmful habits, the replies are almost always self-assured. For example:
Me: Why do you smoke so much? It causes so many ailments and diseases.
Friend: I know, I know. But I do it in controlled amounts. It won’t harm me.
Similar talks on weed consumption result in an even higher degree of information dissemination – like weed is not bad for your health, it is a natural painkiller, and so on. Sometimes one is faced with the reasoning that it is “herbal”. What is strange is that the counter-arguments are somehow always “scientific truths”. E.g. alcohol is bad for health. But doctors now-a-days suggest some amount of alcohol. As to how much that amount is and whether it is being adhered to or not, is however not a matter of interest to the individual. More often than not, this kind of discussions spin into further talks about how one’s privacy is being infringed upon; how one is being judged for the choices one has made.
Let’s just say that some people smoke or drink because of stress. And there are high chances they cannot stop indulging in it because the stressor has either not fully gone (or not gone at all) or has been replaced by another one. But what about the other bad habits? Eating sugar comes with its own plethora of diseases and dysfunctions which is very kindly neglected until the diagnosis arrives. Everybody knows the importance of daily exercise in their lives, but less than 10% Indians take out time for it, as quoted by the Times of India in 2014. The list of healthy habits goes on – eating fruits daily, having breakfast, maintaining a healthy diet, getting 7-8 hours of sleep – almost every individual knows the rule, the benefits. But how many comply by it?
This brings us to the important question – if people know what they are doing is harmful for them, if they are aware of the healthy habits of life, then why don’t people do what is good for themselves? Some may argue that it is laziness, or lack of time, or lack of resources. However, they are mere excuses born out of something that penetrates deeper than these “perceived” barriers. Something so deep that it called for an extensive discussion in our Health Psychology class.
The answer to the above question is the “Illusion of Immortality”. This was talked about extensively by Dr. David Gilles (2000) in his book of the same name, which focused on celebrities and the reasons that drive them to crave for popularity. However, it is Dr. Tony Humphreys’ article (2008) that could be adapted to explain this dilemma. What “Illusion of Immortality” means is that most people are very sure that they are going to live for a long long time. They tend to cling on to things that give them maximum pleasure because most likely than not, the consequences would appear too far in the future to even be cared about. A simple routine – like a diet consisting of only fried food (quite like the average diet followed by today’s college population) will hardly lead to harmful consequences right away, especially when the body is young. At the age of 21, the body can take the junk, and even repair itself quickly in case of a backlash. However, with the same repeated habit over the years, as the body grows older, it will not be able to withstand as much. It is only then that the after-effects start showing. This is usually at the age of 40. But for a 21 year old, 40 seems too far away to be bothered about. We are going to live for a long time, anyway.
This may also be seen in terms of the need for immediate gratification, where the long-term implications are neglected due to lack of a practical foresight. The illusion of immortality, the fact that we won’t die anytime soon, after all, clouds this very function. Ironically, recent trends like YOLO or “you live only once” seem to have taken birth out of this very illusion. Because you have just one life, immediate fulfilment of even harmful desire is justified. Yet this may actually cut short the very life that is being talked of here. Or at least hamper the quality of it.
Since diet is such a crucial part in people’s life, let us have a look into the consequences of an unhealthy diet. There have been theories that an unhealthy diet may shorten lifespan (Spinny, 2006). This link has only been proven in animals after extensive research. However, such a diet does correlate with biomarkers that impact longevity (e.g. Coronary Heart Disease, Hypertension, Atherosclerosis, decreased immune function, etc.). But suppose one does live long despite these ailments, what good would that life be, when the individual, 15 years down the line, cannot do what he/she can right now?
Hence, until this illusion is torn apart with conscious effort, it is indeed doubtful if people will actually start doing what is good for them.