The question of self-control is an age-old problem – puzzling the Greeks, haunting writers of the Enlightenment – which has risen to new heights in the 21st century, where temptations abound while boundaries falter. Never have so many guilty pleasures been offered to us (sugary drinks, fat food, snacks, internet, sex, gambling, etc.) so readily (mainly thanks to the ever progressing technology you don’t even need to leave your comfortable couch anymore to indulge yourself). Never has, in other words, our self-control been under so much constant pressure. Ask Tiger Woods if you must.
This notion of self-restraint is the topic of Daniel Akst’s delightful read “We have met the enemy”. Akst has gone at lengths to study the subject and takes you on a wonderful route from Odysseus who gets his crew to attach him so he can resist the sirens’ calling (a somewhat central theme in Akst’s book) to the influence of holding a hot or cold drink before interviewing someone, with guest appearances from the likes of Homer Simpson, Victor Hugo, Queen Victoria and Sigmund Freud (who has advocated self-control yet whose own inability to quit smoking would lead to many years of suffering and ultimately his death).
Akst covers the issue quite extensively, starting with the central question: is there even something as free will? Study after study has indeed shown that a lot of our choices and reactions are, to an extent far greater than many would be willing to acknowledge, influenced by outer circumstances, guided by our genes and in the end decided by the primitive parts of our brain. The best answer is probably a compromise : much of what we do and who we are is determined by elements we have no control on, with only the remaining part being filled in consciously.
If one could discuss the extent of our self-control, one thing can, as said, not be denied however: it’s being strained more than ever before. Akst aptly demonstrates how our brain’s primary preferences (short time rewards like sitting in a couch eating a packet of crisps) are being tempted more than ever before in history, making it harder to focus on our secondary preferences (being fit and healthy in the long run by exercising regularly and resisting the urge to empty said packet of crisps). To name but one example : where not so long ago gambling was prohibited in all but a few states in the U.S. , it’s now been made legal in all but a few rare exceptions. And even in those latter states the web offers plenty of possibilities to risk your entire savings on a virtual poker table. Think of any other sinful delights and their availability has skyrocketed in the recent decades, many now being a mere click of the mouse away.
At the same time, the classic restraining mechanisms have slowly but surely eroded. Social control in small villages – with the community being a gentle yet omnipresent Big Brother – has been replaced by anonymous lives in great cities, where you can get anyway with almost anything you want without anyone even noticing. Religion, whose notions of sin, guilt and God’s reward or punishment in the afterlife has guided many humans in the past, often putting a lock on their desires and pushing them to concentrate on work and family, is losing its influence fast. And society as a whole has shifted its focus from praising the virtues of self-restraining men and women to applauding those who live life to its fullest. Society urges us to `carpe diem’, but reduced to a pale “eat as much as you can” vision. Or in other words: “resist the temptation to resist the temptation” as an ad quoted in Akst’s book would usher you to do.
This enduring pressure on our self-control is not without consequences, from the somewhat benign phenomenon of procrastination (if you’re reading this review while you’re at the office, you know exactly what I’m talking about!) to excesses of the likes we’ve seen with people like Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods and Robin Williams or even events like the financial crisis of 2008 (being in a way the result of a global lack of self-restraint).
Is all lost? Are we all doomed to succumb to a tsunami of temptations, leading us all to a bloblike existence not so different from the humans portrayed in Wall-E? Luckily not, for Akst offers some solutions in order to reign in our self-control and make sure that our secondary long-term preferences take the upper hand again.
First off, you need to determine some clear targets, some well defined goals you want to achieve in the future which will provide you with a bigger sense of happiness than the ones offered by responding to your immediate urges. Instead of mindlessly surfing hour after hour on the web at the office, you should focus on the positive outcome of remaining concentrated on your job (happy clients, more money coming in, a promotion, etc.).
Furthermore, it’s important to be aware of your environment, since it might very well contain triggers, which will steer you off the right path. Is opening your browser the first thing you do when arriving at the office, then why not hide it away or install a Internet blocker? Do you head for the candy reserve whenever something bothers you, then fill it up with fruit instead. Are you being distracted by that huge stack of comics that fill up your office, then move your office to another place more prone to work!
Do also make sure you enlist the help of your friends. Mention the targets you wish to reach to them and even make a deal with them: if you fail at upholding your undertakings, you’ll for example have to pay them a (hefty) sum of money as a penalty (I did that and it worked wonders for me!).
And so, with a little perseverance you might turn your deliberate choices (exercising twice a week, starting work upon arrival, stop gambling, etc.) into habits, moving those choices into the automatic parts of your brain, making it that much easier to uphold them.
All this and much more can be found in Akst’s compelling book, in which I could only find two (rather minor) flaws. First off, Akst is sometimes too generous with quotations from other writes, from studies, from movies, songs and the likes. While most are to the point and underline the, well, point he’s trying to make, some seem unnecessary, seemingly included more to show off the author’s vast knowledge than being really useful. Some self-restraint on Akst’s behalf might have been needed in that respect (pun obviously intended!). Secondly, after a flying start, the structure of the middle of the book is somewhat `muddy’ and it’s not always clear where Akst is heading for. Thankfully this is only a temporary slump and the book catches a second breath quite fast, leading to a powerful and poignant conclusion, leaving you with the burning question how much of Homer and/or Ned reside in you!
All in all, I can only wholeheartedly recommend Akst’s book as a great and compelling read, providing some very insightful information, allowing you to clarify lots of issues, making you ponder about some of life’s essential turns and twists and offering you ways to reinforce your self-control. Throw in a fluent pen and a great vocabulary, punctuated by a humoristic touch and you got yourself a book that should truly be in everyone’s library!