Think of yourself on your worst behavior: did you construct an elaborate narrative to justify it? Probably. But that narrative is bullshit. The real thing holding us back from growth and genuine happiness is not life in all its absurd, hard, meaningless glory. It's our own series of bullshit loopholes that keep us entrenched in bad habits, and maybe will forever.
It's called moral licensing. The idea is popping up a lot lately online, but its premise, the logic of bullshit, is as old as Father Time: It's the idea that because you've done some little bit of good earlier, you are allowed to misbehave a little or do something "bad" later, as if it somehow cancels the other thing out and makes it OK when in fact it is not, and total bullshit.
Everyone does this, whether about cake or exercise or spending habits or personal grooming or murder. "I can wolf down this entire pizza right now because this morning I only had a bowl of chia seeds soaked in fermented soy." (I don't know your life.) "I can park in this handicapped spot because I just gave money to a homeless guy." "I did my taxes early so I can shoot that guy who farted on the subway." And so on.
We use a number of loopholes to justify all kinds of things that go deliberately against our stated goals or values. We are, as many of you may have suspected since birth, totally and utterly full of shit. And it is all on us, and it is backed up by writers, philosophers, researchers, scientists, your exes, and everyone who has ever known you.
Author Gretchen Rubin, who wrote Better Than Before and The Happiness Project, told the LA Times that the major impediment to happiness is the sheer scale of mental magic people invent so as to not have to change or grow or do a single thing differently than the day before, no matter what they just promised they would change about.
David Levine writes:
Rubin says often the reasons why people fail — even at major efforts such as diet or exercise — is not a matter of willpower but a product of almost magical thinking, searching for and finding loopholes, those justifications that will excuse us from maintaining this particular habit in this particular situation.
This doesn't only pertain to the old sleight of hand with diet and exercise or otherwise minor ethical considerations. A Business Insider piece from July of this year looked at the more insidious effects of all this mental magic. Drake Baer wrote:
For example, researchers have found that people are more willing to express prejudiced attitudes when their past behavior has established them as non-prejudiced; affirming a moral identity can lead people to feel licensed to act immorally; and that people are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products.
Yikes indeed, at least right now while I'm having Fair Trade coffee.
Back at the LA Times, Rubin tells Levine 10 of the most common loopholes people use to avoid change and therefore happiness. And now ye shall look into the river of difficult truth and behold thine self:
False choice loophole: "I can't do this because I'm so busy doing that."
You're in sweatpants watching Rhoda.
Moral licensing loophole: "I've been so good, it's OK for me to do this."
One kale smoothie today, 12 Toaster Strudels tomorrow.
Tomorrow loophole: "It's OK to skip today because I'm going to do this tomorrow."
Trivia tonight, floss two teeth later.
Lack-of-control loophole: "I can't help myself."
Literally the only reason a baby poops her diaper.
Planning-to-fail loophole: "I'll just check my email quickly before I go to the gym … oops, I don't have time to go to the gym, after all." Or, "I'm not going to eat anything more tonight, but I'll go into the kitchen and look in the freezer. Just curious."
Hey, before you hit the town tonight to finally get back out there and meet new people you should probably check what's on YouPorn first.
This-doesn't-count loophole: "I'm on vacation." "I'm sick." "It's the weekend."
"It's not illegal, just frowned upon."
Questionable-assumption loophole: "It's not a proper dinner without wine."
"It's not a Friday night without some molly, your ex boyfriend and a really awkard surprise handjob designed to get him back."
Concern-for-others loophole: "I can't do this because it might make other people uncomfortable."
You've always hated Sheila.
Fake self-actualization loophole: "You only live once! Embrace the moment!"
Get it tattooed over the dolphin on your ankle.
One-time loophole: "What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?"
Dunno, how different does literally every day of your sucky life look? Not very different. It's fine. Don't go changin'. It's probably not going to work anyway.
No really. Don't go changin'.
GIF by Tara Jacoby.