It is often said that if we want to change the world, we must begin with ourselves. There is wisdom in this recommendation. If we want others to act on a big problem, we might want to start by making a good example. Plus, while we have a very limited control over what happens in the world around us, we can control how we behave and how we react to what happens to us.
Given the scale of the world’s problems—bushfires killing a billion animals in Australia or world governments failing to act on the climate crisis as the world inches closer to tipping points—it is worth examining the opposite approach. If we want to improve our situation in life, we might have to fight for a better world.
There is growing scientific evidence that this might be a more effective approach in making long-term improvements to our collective wellbeing. Let us examine the evidence.
According to surveys, among the most common New Year’s resolutions include exercising more, losing weight, eating healthier foods, reading more, saving more money, and quitting smoking.
The challenge of keeping New Year’s resolutions is usually framed as a problem of self-control. Do you want to lose weight or spend less time on social media? All you need is self-control.
However, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the people who rated themselves as being the best at self-control also reported experiencing fewer temptations throughout their day. In other words, the people who said they were good at self-control rarely exercised it.
This result lines up with the findings of a more recent paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In the study, participants who experienced more temptations, and who therefore had to practice self-control more often, were less successful in accomplishing their goals.
In addition to higher rates of failure, the study participants who were subjected to more temptations and exerted more self-control also reported feeling more depleted.
On the other hand, the participants who experienced fewer temptations, and who therefore rarely practiced self-control, were more successful in their goals.
These findings have tremendous practical applications for improving public health and financial wellness. Instead of exhorting people to practice self-control over their diet or their financial choices, these studies suggest that we can get better results by changing people’s environment so that they are subjected to fewer temptations.
This effect can be seen in a 2015 study published in the journal Health Affairs. The study works on the well-known idea of a “food desert.” Food deserts are areas where access to healthier food options is not readily available. People living in food deserts have to travel farther in order to buy nutritious foods.
The study found that opening a local supermarket that offers healthier options improved the health outcomes of a community when compared to a community that remained a food desert.
The effect of environmental changes to better behavioral outcomes is the central concern of the increasingly popular Nudge Theory in behavioral science.
In their influential book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein define a nudge as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”
An example of a nudge is the placement of foods in a store. For example, several studies suggest that placing fruits and healthy snacks near the cash register made people buy them more. Meanwhile, placing more sugary foods farther, in places that are harder to see, made people buy less of them.
While these suggestions sound obvious, the fact is that there are powerful vested interests intent on keeping the status quo. There is, after all, billions in profit to be had selling high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks.
Another example that shows the necessity of changing the world involves the effect of public spaces and public transportation on health and wellbeing.
A mountain of evidence supports the idea that the existence of public spaces such as parks and improvements in public transportation both have very big impacts on public health. They range from the obvious—more parks means more physically active citizens—to the less apparent—more convenient public transportation means people can use their mental energies to make better life choices.
Again, obvious as these suggestions sound, they require big shifts in public policy and spending. In other words, they require changing the world.
As we try to improve ourselves in this new year, we must not forget to also actively participate in political and social pushes to change the world into one where making better life choices is easier than making bad ones.