When my kids were small I got hold of Bill Bennet’s Book of Virtues a collection of essays and stories about virtue. Mr. Bennet named it “virtues” as opposed to “values” to distinguish traits found in nature from social constructs. The former hold true throughout nature whereas values do not apply outside your tribe. Thus every wingnut knows the moonbats who disagree with him are not merely wrong, but evil. And vice versa. (Anyone who disagrees with me really is Hitler.)
Mr. Bennet’s book is organized according to topics and within each topic the stories and essays are ranked in increasing difficulty. Given my arrogance, I liked to read the last ones first. This smacked me up the side of the head with C. S. Lewis’ essay from The Abolition of Man entitled “Men without Chests.” I’d read this essay without understanding a decade before so I took pains to grok its central point: proper affections.
Notions of good and evil are malleable (as moonbats/wingnuts demonstrate). Lewis claimed that for a society to function, that its citizens must conform their values to the virtues extant in nature. This is a matter of work within one’s character. Thus proper affections were included in these works on moral pedagogy.
Naturally a human is inclined to think the pleasant is good and the unpleasant is evil. This is just operant conditioning.
For instance, no-bake cookies, baklava, fresh-from-the-oven banana bread, and pumpkin pie are quite pleasant as I can attest from experience. (You may substitute your favorite high-calorie/low-nutrition treats.) Conversely, physical labor, exercise, salads, and fasting are less so. Obviously the former are good and the latter are evil.
Have you looked in the mirror with your shirt off? If you like what you see, then you have no reason to adjust your sweets=good, salad=evil judgment. But if you dislike being fat and anticipate negative health consequences from obesity, then you are well advised to cultivate a more nuanced sense of good and evil.
(Lest you think I’m fat-shaming you, I should remind you that you alone need to decide whether you like or dislike being fat.)
This process is a corollary of C. S. Lewis’ exhortation that society should encourage proper affections in its youth. (Proper affections are the “chests” that Lewis referred to in his essay’s title.) In my case I consciously reassigned categories of good/evil from sweets to nutrition-dense foods and from rest to exercise. Sweets became evil. Exercise became good.
This was enough to get me from a weight of 286 pounds down to under 178 pounds. After I hit my target weight I pivoted to a weight-maintenance scheme. This has proved harder than the original weight-loss regime. Merely regarding foods as good or evil is not nearly nuanced enough for the long-term.
My most recent challenge has been that I am very good about meeting my daily exercise goals, but less careful about resisting the urge to snack and thereby exceed my daily calorie intake allocation.
Problem was that on one hand I had something positive to add (exercise), but not-doing something on the other hand.
Yesterday I was contemplating this asymmetry when I realized that I had to treat each resisted-temptation as an accomplishment equivalent to some amount of exercise.
How am I going to track that? I mean, on the one hand here’s my Fitbit that counts each step, flights of steps climbed, and heart rate. On the other hand, there’s something that didn’t happen. Hmmmm.
And when I do resist the temptation to eat that slice of banana bread, how do I compare that with steps or distance walked? A little thought provided a neat answer: calories.
A piece of pie is 250 calories. A mile walked is 100 calories. Hence, the pie I did not eat is equal to 2.5 miles walked. Interesting. That’s a lot of bang for just resisting an indulgence. I could probably walk away from dozens of sweets per day and that would count the same as walking a hundred miles. This calls for a road trip!
I got a little carried away there, but the germ of the idea isn’t silly. Resisting the urge is an accomplishment and it’s a worthwhile thing to value it as such. One cannot make a simple matter of motivation a big hairy moralistic crusade, but one should attach positive value to self-control.
And cultivate it.
As a result, I find that when I notice that I’m more than a little peckish for having skipped supper, but that I am downright empty–that I feel this hollowness in my gut–then, I smile and regard it as an accomplishment that’s even more significant than my having walked 10 miles that morning.
Now, if you think this advice is good where it concerns dieting, what do you think it might do if we applied it to personal finance?