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If I Lose Weight...Will I Be Happy?

  •   13 min reads
If I Lose Weight...Will I Be Happy?

“Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without.”- Dr. Jonathan Haidt – The Happiness Hypothesis

This post is going to get a little deep. I practice Zen Buddhism. I was burned in the forearm with incense when I was nineteen years old. My first teachers are all dead. I was entirely celibate for two years at the age of 20, but have also been a meditating social alcoholic at multiple points in my life. I am now almost eight years sober, but throughout much of my life I’ve been haunted by this question of “what is enough?”

I don’t think I am alone, as many of us struggle with the concept of happiness. However, despite what the “live your truth” crowd might say, the point of human life is not to be happy.

The true biological purpose of life is to get your genes into the next generation. This is the literal definition of evolutionary fitness and biologically and behaviorally this begins to explain why pleasure is fleeting and why humans are the kings and queens of adapting to comforts (and discomforts).

Stoicism and Buddhist philosophies exude an idealistic image of happiness coming from within and teach that attachment is the root of all suffering.

Thus, if we don’t ever want to suffer, we must practice non-attachment and then in this state of non-attachment or impermanence we can find happiness?

Probably not, and pursuing meditation in order to attain something is a Western perturbation of these philosophies.

The problem is…we live in a world where hot bodies are HOT, and tacos are delicious.

While it is our attachment to hot bodies and tacos that tends to get us into trouble, are they completely empty?

Is life about living in the ether of non-attachment to nothingness or is it really all about sex, drugs, cocoa puffs…and abs?

If it is the latter then we’re all inevitably going to be stuck on this hedonic treadmill of I will be happy when

Yet, this isn’t really a new problem because since the invention of luxury goods during the industrial revolution, humans have been toiling their time away for the latest and greatest clothes and iPhones.

And no matter how stoic we strive to be, in our current environment, most of us care about our reputation and status symbols, but any direct happiness derived from this conspicuous consumption is likely fleeting.

In general, if you are constantly financially worried about the necessities of life, money will buy happiness, but past that point, the relationship seems to diminish and we are perhaps left keeping up with the Jones’s for the sake of keeping up with the Jones’s [1, 2]. However, recent evidence suggests that the link between income and well-being and life satisfaction may be somewhat linear in the modern world [3], but it may depend on how we spend our money and what the time and stress price is for an increase in discretionary income [2-7]. Interestingly and somewhat in line with this ideology, subjective assessments of socioeconomic status (SES) are better predictors of well-being than objective SES metrics [8].

Yet, there are quite a few somewhat external factors that do seem to consistently lead to greater happiness, life satisfaction, subjective well-being, and/or quality of life [2, 9-15]:

· Increased health status

· Engagement and satisfaction with leisure time

· Reduced time stress

· Financial satisfaction

· Reduced commute time

· Reduced or eliminated unpredictable noise

· Increased body image and body satisfaction.

· Increased autonomy while maintaining companionship

· A sense of belonging, social connections, and pro-sociality

· Authentic self-expression and life meaning

· A sense of purpose

You may notice that many, if not all of these most of these factors or conditions likely have an individual threshold where more probably won’t lead to more happiness and may even lead to less.

For example, how much companionship or autonomy do you really want?

How much silence or free time is enough before you lose your sense of purpose?

But, if we get back to the original question behind this article - If Someone Loses Weight Could It Increase Their Well Being and Happiness?

Yes, it is possible [16-19]. It could also be argued that, in some instances, attaining abs in our current culture may actually provide greater opportunities for some other happiness-driving externals. But, appearance-based goals and unrealistic expectations upon the onset of weight loss have been found to be related a higher likelihood of attrition and even weight gain over longer periods of time [20-22].

If someone loses 10 to 20 kilos and this degree of weight loss puts type II diabetes into remission or potentially gets them off insulin their quality of life and sense of well-being will very likely increase [23-25]. However, if someone loses 5, 10, or even 20 kilos and it doesn’t have a direct and significant impact on their daily life and they still hate their body...very probably not.

If they get into a RED-S state, dieting and dieting perseveration could even take away from the other aspects of their life that bring them joy and this state could certainly have negative psychological and psychological effects that decrease their overall well-being.

At this point, we can all likely see that riding the hedonic Diet Culture Ab treadmill for social media likes probably won’t fill us up inside, but is it better to be Results Driven or Process Focused?

To begin to answer this question let’s jump down the rabbit hole of James Clear’s framework of Outcomes vs. Processes vs. Identity-based habits [26]:

Adaptation from James Clear's Atomic Habit's framework. 

Or maybe you have seen this through Simon Sinek's framework.

Outcomes and Results... or the Whats is the domain of business and SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable (originally Assignable), Relevant, and Time-Based).*

We have all likely come into contact or experienced the potential psychological negatives of the overused and wrongfully attributed Peter Drucker capitalistic quote “what gets measured gets managed” in the health and body composition space.

Moreover, when we flippantly combine these endless personal development principles to weight loss and body composition changes, it can certainly drive diet harder culture.

It also supports a 70+ billion dollar weight loss industry rife with fit teas and waist trainers. Perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to the diet industry or as a well-thought-out capitalistic pivot, there has been a “new” push within the nutrition and fitness community for “identity” based habits—in other words, the internalization of external motivation.

Unfortunately, this thirst for belonging and meaning applied to food and fitness can get us into trouble.

Vegan vs. Paleo

Keto vs. Anyone who wants to eat an apple

CrossFit, But Not CrossFit Carnivore vs. Everyone else

Ironically, even a nebulous identity of “I am a healthy person” can also be problematic and pave the way for dichotomous thinking and judgment around food and exercise.

For example, if one believes that healthy people can’t eat rice, this distortion of reality can have a negative impact on their psychology and their relationship with food.

It can also turn us into annoying, judgey humans who no one really wants to really hang out with. Uncompromising (and unfounded) views of what a healthy person is can lead to social isolation and perpetual personal dissatisfaction. Unless, of course, we find a Facebook group that caters to our particular brand of dietary extremism or elitism.

Health isn’t constantly worrying about your health and anything taken to an extreme can be unhealthy…even and especially health.

So, if outcomes are empty and health identities are bullshit, what do we have left?

The Process?

This yums all my yums, and if you follow my work, you may have even heard me say annoying things like:

Never set an outcome goal without a process goal.

Mastery is impossible. Try anyways.

Sweep the floor.

The past is fiction. The future fantasy.

This is because even though we can’t say it, Buddhism is obsessed (not attached though) with the Process in the here and now.

Buddhists attempt to let go of Outcomes and Identities at every opportunity.

“No goal with nothing to attain.”

-Shunryu Suzuki

“To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves.”


“I don’t exercise to get fit or be healthier; I do it to enjoy being alive.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Come on, Thich!

You want me to want to want to get 10,000 steps just for the sake of walking and then not be attached to ever getting 10,000 steps.

Never mind, I know you want me to let go of wanting.

Wait, you don’t really want anything.

Also, I really should stop saying I because “I” is just a construct created by a brain that wants abs.

It can all be very circular and generally unproductive. Thoughts bubble up and ramble on. That's what thoughts do and then we can watch them float away.  

Perhaps a more productive tactic is to look at the positives and negatives of each of these spheres.

The positive of having an outcome is that you have direction.

Processes, or even an identity, without an outcome is a rudderless ship.

That said, what should the outcome be?

Is it possible to become addicted to abs, or even the pursuit of abs? Where is the line in the sand of what is good or bad?

What is enough?

If you are constantly staring out at the comparative body composition horizon and relentlessly pinching your fat, without any enjoyment of the process, all you are likely going to find is emptiness.

If you combine this with an extreme attachment to your physique, you have surely bought yourself a one-way ticket to eventual suffering. This is the Tren for likes diet culture world that may permeate your search feed.

This is the downside of outcomes that can easily snowball into identities that become inflated and trapped by reputation and status.

Alternatively, this “Fall in Love with the Process” pendulum has perhaps swung a bit too far to metabolically unhealthy individuals with perhaps a 900% increased risk of type II diabetes and subsequent decrease in quality of life falling in love with the process of not going anywhere.

No Goals with No Intent is an odd place from which to look down on other people who have health goals or body composition destinations they care about.

That’s the confirmation biased judgey Anti-Diet World that may also permeate your search feed.

IMO, this is the potential downside of non-attachment taken out to the extreme. Judge-iness for other people just wanting to do stuff. "Don't you see it's all empty!"

But again, where is the line in the sand where an outcome or even an attachment to a certain process is good or bad?

I think Dr. Adam Alter [27] provides a framework for behavioral addiction that is helpful here and it consists of six ingredients:

· Compelling goals that are just beyond reach

· Irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback

· A sense of incremental progress and improvement

· Tasks that become slowly more difficult over time

· Unresolved tensions that demand resolution

· Strong social connections

As a perpetual addict, the positives and negatives of behavioral addictions are clear to me.

It doesn’t come down to if you are addicted to something. It comes down to how much and at what price.

I am clearly addicted to training and at one point in my life that addiction almost destroyed my marriage and left me alone with a pretentious neon pre-workout container and a memorization of all my CrossFit stats no one else cared about.

At a certain point, it wasn’t about my health. I was just addicted to being a CrossFitter. It became the filter in which I viewed the world. The story I told myself was that it was all for “health,” but that was complete bullsh*t. I was popping pain pills to be better at working out in my garage for invisible prestige balloons.

That is the gift and the curse of outcomes and identity-based habits.

Values and identities are powerful and chasing the right outcomes with personalized processes on both the individual and societal levels are perhaps the only way we make any dent in the greatest problems of progress our species has ever faced.

Culturally, we say we value health, but in general we don’t have a real, objective sense of what it means to be healthy.

So, we are left with dogmatic vegans and cantankerous carnivores, and never-ending Netflix documentaries.

It is time for someone to say it.

I WANT people to be able to have an I AM HEALTHY identity that doesn’t involve photoshopped resting eight packs or an unrelenting dread of potatoes. See HERE for Can You Really Be Healthy At Any Size?

I want people to be able to have the most inclusive view of health as possible and to let go of judgments on others, which are ultimately unhelpful to all involved.

I want people to feel sexy in their bodies.

I want people to be healthy in their bodies, leaving them space to work on other identities, processes, and outcomes that bring joy and increase a sense of purpose, belonging, and autonomy in their life.

I want you to be Happy and if that involves abs or the pursuit of abs…Great!

And, if it doesn’t…Great!

Here’s the only questions that really matter though; What do you want?

What are the processes that could bring this want to fruition?

And what is the price of that want in your everyday life?

Or, perhaps another way to look at it, how many tacos can you eat with friends?

Ultimately only you can decide…What is enough?

TL;DR – We are each on our own journey of finding out what leads to contentment and happiness...and ultimately what is enough. Not good. Not bad. “Life is short. Examine it deeply.” - Buddha

*Given my bias, I tend to think of Outcomes and Identities as just part of the Process.

A Story

It’s been a wild week. I had the opportunity to travel to Florida to watch Ethan Grossman compete in the amateur Olympia.

He won.

Not just his weight class, but the overall.

Ethan has had this outcome-based vision for 20 years.

He’s been relentlessly planning for this first big stepping stone moment on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis for decades, and this past Wednesday he won his IFBB Pro Card under the lights on the biggest of stages.

Ethan’s journey over the last two decades is the perfect example of Outcome, Processes, and Identity Alignment.

This isn’t a coincidence. He built it this way while having some of the best in the business objectively check that his processes and outcomes were aligned.

What has struck me most about Ethan is that it isn’t the identity of a Bodybuilder that seems to define him. It isn’t the outcome of the weight on the bar or that he now has his Pro card.

It seems to be the process that defines him…the daily routines that he has etched into his DNA with compounding effort over time.

I am not saying that I didn’t see and feel sheer joy and jubilation on his face this week.

I did…and I surely felt all of those emotions as his family, friends, and coaches screamed for him from row four.

But, I also saw what I think was a sense of fleeting contentment that he knew was fleeting so he was taking time to be present with that feeling.

Watching it flow through his callused hands like water.

He did a monumentally hard thing with very little external validation over the last decade.

The ultimate marshmallow test.

He has no social media accounts. No one in this cloud of likes knows who he is.

He is an intentional underground ghost that came out of literally nowhere to put himself on the map of the sport he loves and simultaneously detests.

I don’t believe Ethan did any of this to be “Happy”.

I think he did it because it is the only thing he knows how to do…

He shows up and he works.

He plans and he executes…and perhaps in the sweat and effort of that process lies contentment. But, even that feeling likely flows through his hands like water.

Watching it.

He gets back to work.

Ethan Thank You for Your Effort.


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