salt, sugar, cigarette

Should you live without vices?

Certain bad habits can actually be an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

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.

Self-Control Overload

If you spot these red flags, you might need to dial back.

1. Irritability or mood swings

In some cases, negative emotions are signs that you are going too fast out of the gate. Cut yourself some slack or tackle one habit at a time if you’re multitasking to keep a healthy level of motivation, says Palma.

2. Feeling like you “have to”

This might mean you’re channeling your willpower into places you don’t necessary want to, says Uziel. Evaluate if your decisions are really important to you, rather than striving for self-control to win the approval of others.

3. Isolating yourself

Trying to get away from people because they no longer “fit” your new habits isn’t always great. If your self-control is targeted toward healthy—but not extreme—behaviors like eating well and getting in enough exercise, it’s worth seeking out new circles where people can appreciate your efforts, says Dalcourt.

4. Your biomarkers are off

Stressing too much about willpower can show up on your blood work, says Dalcourt. If your levels of C-reactive protein, cortisol, and insulin are high, you may want to take a look at your lifestyle and stress levels to see where you need to scale back.

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 
Despite the fact that vices are inherent to humanity, it’s also human to want to work on curbing or ditching them. “Striving to fight bad habits is part of the human experience and will always be so,” says Liad Uziel, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. And a key player is self-control, an ability to choose the grilled chicken over the chicken alfredo or bypass happy hour for yoga.

Some researchers think that self-control is like a battery and once depleted, there’s no more left. Others believe it is more similar to a muscle or a snowball: the more you use it, the bigger it gets, and you’re able to resist temptations of any variety. Palma’s new research hypothesizes it could be both. In a recent study, participants were asked to keep their eyes on a bull’s-eye on screen. Palma’s team was able to track participants’ eye movements to see exactly how many times they strayed. Next, people were asked to complete a shopping task to see if they would be prone to impulse buys. Palma found that those who exercised self-control in the eye-tracking task but then stopped when they were fatigued were much more likely to avoid impulse shopping. The opposite was true for those who remained focused on the bull’s eye: their drive to impulse shop was higher. “If you overdo it in one activity, you might reach your fatigue point and that’s when you actually start to do all these other little sins in other domains of your life,” he says. “But if you practice a skill for a short while and take a break when you’re feeling worn out, it will not only leave you with some juice for the next activity where you might need self-control, you will be more motivated to exercise it.”

His research can help explain why people have a hard time ditching bad habits and vices when they bite off more than they can chew. A better strategy is starting small and tackling one habit at a time. “Doing little things will stir up motivation that will have a profound effect on our lives,” he says. “And once you’ve established one good habit, other healthy habits might be easier to reach.”

Recently, more and more people are voluntarily embracing a sober lifestyle, and the “snowball” effect of self-control might be behind it. These individuals—who don’t have a problem with alcohol that requires treatment—already tend to have several good habits on deck: they eat well, exercise, and get in good quality sleep. “Since their snowball of self-control is already big, they’re able to keep an extremely high level of motivation, making it easier to tackle another habit,” says Palma. 

Self-Control Overload

If you spot these red flags, you might need to dial back.

1. Irritability or mood swings

In some cases, negative emotions are signs that you are going too fast out of the gate. Cut yourself some slack or tackle one habit at a time if you’re multitasking to keep a healthy level of motivation, says Palma.

2. Feeling like you “have to”

This might mean you’re channeling your willpower into places you don’t necessary want to, says Uziel. Evaluate if your decisions are really important to you, rather than striving for self-control to win the approval of others.

3. Isolating yourself

Trying to get away from people because they no longer “fit” your new habits isn’t always great. If your self-control is targeted toward healthy—but not extreme—behaviors like eating well and getting in enough exercise, it’s worth seeking out new circles where people can appreciate your efforts, says Dalcourt.

4. Your biomarkers are off

Stressing too much about willpower can show up on your blood work, says Dalcourt. If your levels of C-reactive protein, cortisol, and insulin are high, you may want to take a look at your lifestyle and stress levels to see where you need to scale back.


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.