These days it seems like everyone is dropping their vices. Both the wellness and self-improvement movements have ignited a culture of kicking temptations like cheat days, sugar, or embracing sobriety. But it’s also possible to overdo self-control—something that vice maintenance requires—and risk your health in the process. Here’s what you need to know about striking the right balance.
The Origin of Vices
While we don’t know yet if vices are an innate, biological need, humans have been confronting them, successfully or not, for centuries. “We’ve always been drawn to the ‘forbidden fruit,’ whether it’s sex, drinking, or dessert,” says Dara Bushman, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “And the more you are feeling guilt or shame around that forbidden activity, the more likely you are to do it.” Research from Northwestern University has found that guilt actually increases feelings of desire and pleasure in the brain, making temptations even more enticing.
Other vices might be thanks to brain chemistry. Take sugar: Thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherers relied on the sweet stuff, like the kind found in berries, for energy and ultimately survival. “Our brains evolved to reward people when they found sugar—it was the difference between life and death,” says Marco Palma, Ph.D., a researcher who studies self-control at Texas A&M University. “We have evolved so quickly in the last 100 years that our brains have not caught up, so it’s no surprise that when we eat sugar, it still lights up the reward center of the brain.”
Vices like working too much don’t have an evolutionary background—they might actually have been detrimental to survival—but they could have been picked up from our environments or reinforced through social cues, says Bushman. For example, if you work in an industry that rewards late nights at the office, your boss or co-workers might give you praise or a promotion, further ingraining the idea that burning the midnight oil is worthwhile and valuable. Psychologically, you begin to seek out and justify that behavior.
Overtraining can be explained in this way as well. “Our environments and how people respond to us and our goals can have a big impact on the decisions that we make,” says Michol Dalcourt, founder and director of the Institute of Motion and a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. “So if people in your circle are constantly working out, it’s likely you’ll do the same. And then maybe they’ll admire how much you push yourself, so you’ll continue to do it. If we surround ourselves with individuals who support and praise these habits, we’ll generally stick to them even when they are unhealthy.”
Shifting Away From Temptation
The Consequences of A Vice-Free Life
Here’s where the notion of balance comes into play. Research has found that chasing a vice-free life can backfire. In studies, when people desire more self-control, they’re often left having less of it. “Psychologically, wanting more of something can make us think that we’re deficient or not good enough,” says Uziel. “This thinking might cause someone to have less faith in their abilities to meet difficult challenges and give up sooner, essentially resulting in less self-control.”
Uziel adds that often people who are too focused on maintaining “good” habits 24/7—whatever those are for them—become inflexible, which can hurt their relationships. “Sometimes people with high self-control set standards and expectations that are too stiff or too high,” he says. “They become less forgiving and less flexible.”
Ultimately, self-control comes with a trade-off. “We should try to improve ourselves and our [bad habits], but with some moderation,” he says.
“To live a healthy lifestyle is to balance the social, the emotional, the physical, the cognitive domains,” adds Brandon Marcello, Ph.D., a high-performance strategist in Sarasota, Florida, who has worked with professional and Olympic athletes to reform habits such as playing too many video games, eating junk food, and overtraining. “If you look at longevity and the people that have lived the longest, they have a beautiful blend between all four of these areas. Someone who is very focused on his or her physical domain and might not have any ‘bad habits’ but doesn’t, for example, have a good social support system or purpose in life, isn’t any healthier.”
Bottom line: “vices” are OK in small doses and could even be beneficial. “Going out with friends and enjoying wine once in a while, for example, is fantastic socially, emotionally, and even cognitively,” Marcello adds. “And because it’s so beneficial for all of those areas, there is likely very little impact on the physical domain. Ultimately, the benefits outweigh the costs for most people.” Two bad habits to watch out for: the aforementioned working-too-much and overtraining vices. “They just don’t function the same way something like wine might. You might get a social reward from overtraining or working, but excessive amounts are not helping you physically, cognitively, or emotionally,” says Marcello.