The November/December Scientific American Mind is a tribute to the seven deadly sins. Not that gluttony, envy, greed, sloth, wrath, lust and pride are necessarily laudable traits, but we can learn a lot from them. Some of them can even work in our favor if we know how to harness them. Others, we must simply know how to tame.
Gluttony: It’s true. Most of us eat too much of the wrong things, at least occasionally. The reason lies in brain mechanisms that cause us to eat simply for pleasure, even after we have met our body’s metabolic needs. Here’s how to keep your intake healthy.
--Avoid foods high in sugar and fat. Such edibles are more likely to trigger a binge.
--Limit your choices at a meal. People get tired of single foods, which is a good thing if you’re trying limit consumption. If you switch from one delicious morsel to a different one, you will eat more.
--Choose exciting or unusual flavors. People tend to eat bland foods more robotically, devouring more of them in a sitting.
--Avoid situations that prompt you to eat unhealthy food—watching television, say, or strolling past a vending machine.
(See “Gluttony: Are We Addicted to Eating?” by Karen Schrock Simring.)
Envy: Though this “green-eyed monster” is clearly a downer, we can diminish its harmful effects and direct it to motivate ourselves to perform better.
--Try to turn hostile feelings into a form of admiration, and use that to focus your own goals. Then work hard to meet them.
--Focus on what you do have, not what you lack.
(See “Envy: The Feeling Can Help Us Even When It Hurts,” by Jan Crusius and Thomas Mussweiler.)
Greed: All in all, it’s not good. Here are the harms to watch out for.
--Don’t get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses. Pay only for what you really want and can afford. To do otherwise, can lead to debt, divorce and upheaval.
--Greed can motivate us to rationalize ethically dubious acts. Instead, consider the people who might suffer from your behavior.
--Be fair and help your neighbor. You might even improve the economy.
(See “How Economic Selfishness Harms Us All,” by Dan Ariely and Aline Grüneisen.)
Sloth: We often put off difficult or loathsome tasks to dispel negative emotions. Here’s how to put yourself back on track.
--Recognize your negativity and reappraise the situation; that is, change the way you respond to it emotionally. Consider some way in which acting now would benefit you.
--Don’t dwell on your decision to delay an important task. Forgive yourself, and move on.
--Avoid temptations. Then you don’t have to bother fighting them.
(See “Sloth: To Stop Procrastinating, Focus on Emotions,” by Sandra Upson.)
Wrath: Situational couple violence is a brand of domestic abuse perpetrated by men and women at equal rates. Rather than escalating, as the male-dominated intimate terrorism tends to, this form emerges intermittently as conflict situations get out of hand. It is driven, the authors say, by failures in self-control. To avoid such breakdowns, try these tactics.
--Boost your self-control. Try mindfulness training, or exercises such as using the nondominant hand for some daily tasks for a couple of weeks.
--Avoid or prevent factors that weaken self-control such as drinking, sleep loss and stress.
--Reappraise conflicts with your spouse by describing them from the point of view of a neutral third party who wants a positive outcome for everyone.
(See “Wrath: How Intimacy Can Breed Violence,” by Eli J. Finkel and Caitlin W. Duffy.)
Lust: The emotion may be associated with impulsivity and risk taking, but lust is love’s partner in relationships and a critical ingredient to strong and lasting ones. Rather than suppressing lust, or denying its role, recognize the importance of this feeling. Doing so may lead to the tools for repairing your relationship. (See “Lust: Sexual Desire Forges Lasting Relationships,” by Stephanie Cacioppo and John T. Cacioppo.)
Pride: The emotion comes in two distinct flavors. The less agreeable form, hubristic pride, underlies narcissism and brings aggression and conflict. Authentic pride, on the other hand, is the basis of self-esteem and can spur achievement and caring for others. Both types can earn you influence, but only one is consistent with friendship and contentment. Here’s how to cultivate the authentic flavor of this feeling.
--Accept hard-won pride as a prize for a job well done and nourish it to propel yourself to greater heights or motivate you to help others.
--Be wary of any feeling that leads you to act like a bully or arrogant jerk. Even if you become king of the hill, hanging out there is going to be lonely.
(See “Pride: It Brings Out the Best—and Worst—in Humans,” by Jessica L. Tracy.)