Bad habits are easy to form and difficult to break, as the saying goes. And judging by the latest scientific research, nearly all of us are sleepwalking along in a zombie states of incessant bad habits that are threatening to completely ruin our lives.
We don’t mean stuff like sleeping in late and having one too many coffees, either. We mean each and every one of us is doing simple, everyday-seeming stuff that research says is killing us. Don’t believe us? Take a look at the following list of deadly behaviors, and you might recognize more on there than you’re comfortable with.
Hands up, those of you who are reading this while they should be working. Don’t feel bad. We all do it. What’s more fun: chilling out on a Top 10 website or getting those figures ready for your boss, amiright? But get a little too far into the procrastination matrix, and you’ll find putting stuff off isn’t just lazy. It’s actively wrecking your future chances of happiness.
The ‘procrastination matrix’ is a term coined by Tim Urban, who recently did an entire TED Talk about procrastination. He’s considered something of an expert in this field, having written countless articles and given countless talks on it. And he’s convinced it’s holding people back so badly, it’s basically an illness.
See, Urban’s theory is that procrastination can creep in and affect your whole life, even while you’re supposedly being productive. So you might think you’re watching cat gifs while you build up the energy to tackle that report for the job you hate, but Urban would see that as double procrastination. In his ‘matrix,’ doing the job you hate is also procrastination – putting off looking for a job that you might love. By wasting time at work, you’re ensuring that you also waste too much time eventually doing the work; meaning you never have time to get on in life and realize your potential.
Put it this way, when you finally get before St. Peter, would you rather say: “I did a job I loved and had time to raise a family” or “I spent my whole life rage-reading articles on the internet”?
9. Worrying about the Future
Sometimes, we take a leap of faith and wind up falling flat on our faces. It’s embarrassing, and most of us learn very early on to ‘look before you leap’. But that kind of foresight can easily go from being something we deploy only when we need to, to something that consumes our waking lives. So, so many of us spend hours upon hours planning for future contingencies that will never come to pass. And science says it’s leading us straight into horrific depression.
Human minds like patterns. It’s astonishingly easy to train yourself into a pattern of thinking, especially in your formative years. The trouble is, this means we can start spending more and more time planning for the future, to the extent that we slide into worrying. And worrying has been proven to underlie a whole host of negative disorders, from anxiety, to depression, to eating disorders.
In short, by obsessively picking over possible future events, you can train yourself into a lasting mental illness.
8. Overthinking the Past
It’s the most-natural trait in the world. Thinking about the past. Nearly all of us do it on a daily basis. Sometimes, those memories might be happy ones we hold dear. At other times, we may find ourselves ruminating on an instance of loss or failure. Unfortunately, we’ve got some bad news for you. Scientists have found that looking to the past can be just as bad for your mental health as obsessing over the future.
As with worrying, rumination can easily train our brain into obsessive behavior. We get to the point that the simplest things trigger a slew of negative memories, and that in turn can create a cycle of endless dwelling on the past. Like worrying, this rumination has been linked to depression and anxiety and even poor performance at work. Frighteningly, you can accidentally train yourself into it with astonishing ease.
Ed Watkins at the University of Exeter has previously asked subjects dealing with depression to ruminate for five minutes. He found that simply asking them to dwell on the past for a brief time period worsened their symptoms noticeably. In fact, the link between thinking about the past and future depression is so strong researchers can use it as a predictor of future mental health.
7. Reading the News
For those of us who work with internet connections – or simply like to keep up with the world – reading the news is a basic part of any day. Maybe you visit the Guardian website, or scroll through the BBC, or pick up a print copy of the LA Times, or something else entirely. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you should probably stop. Now. Because research has shown that the news is probably killing you.
The issue arises from both the sensationalism of modern news and the age we live in. Every day, we read headlines about airliners crashing into the Mediterranean, or ISIS exploding a bomb in a Belgian airport, or rioters cutting loose in America’s inner-cities. Although these things likely don’t affect us directly (at least hopefully), our bodies nonetheless act like they represent an immediate danger. A scary story triggers your limbic system, sending your entire body out of whack. You can wind up as tense and physically compromised as someone suffering chronic stress.
Our bodies haven’t evolved to keep up with a 24/7 global news cycle. We’re still biologically at the stage where hearing about a disaster meant it was probably heading your way. As a result, news can instill in us anything from anxiety, to a compromised immune system, to excess aggression.
6. Using Email
By this point, virtually every single person in the developed world has an active email address. Most jobs are impossible without one, and social interactions are becoming increasingly harder. Yet just because something is everywhere doesn’t mean it’s healthy. After all, it’s not so long ago that 90 percent of people smoked cigarettes. While email won’t give you lung cancer, it totally can screw up your brain.
Email – and most social media updates – follow the same pattern as slot machines, known as ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule.’ In both cases, they reward you when an action is performed. With email, by giving you a brand new message from your friends to open; with slot machines, by dispensing money. But with each case, the initial behavior is only rewarded at random, unpredictable times. In other words, email activates the same areas of your brain as gambling. And if you’ve ever witnessed a gambling addict freak out at a losing streak, you know this isn’t a good thing.
Because of this, people who constantly check social media updates or their emails are prone to the same irritability, loss of concentration and anxiety as gamblers. Way back in 2008, it was estimated that this causes obsessive people a loss of 8.5 working hours per week. With the emergence of smartphones and so-on since then, we imagine it’s only gotten worse.
5. Using Social Media
Today, it seems like the entire world lives and breathes social media. Facebook has so many users that if the website was a country, it’d have a population slightly larger than China. Twitter is ubiquitous among journalists. Just about every teen on Earth uses Whatsapp or Snapchat.
Yet social media’s popularity masks a disturbing trend. Young adults and teens who use social media a lot are significantly more-likely to experience crippling depression.
Of course, this is a chicken and egg thing. Are social media users depressed because they use social media, or are they turning to Facebook because they are depressed? No-one can say for sure at the moment, but researchers have their suspicions. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Lui yi Lin recently published one of the most wide-ranging papers on the phenomenon ever, and has identified multiple ways social media could be the cause of depression. These included young adults comparing themselves negatively to others on Facebook, indulging in procrastination, and being exposed to cyberbullying. While we’re on the subject…
4. Comparing Your Life to Others’
Comparing our situation to that of others has been a useful tool in human history. It’s why you don’t spend your days doffing your cap to the king – at some point in the past, someone looked at a royal and thought ‘this dude’s no better than me.’
Unfortunately, the modern world is forever ramming other people’s lives down our throats. And we don’t get to see a whole, or even a semi-complete, picture. Instead we see a super-sanitized version that makes everyone look like they all have the coolest lives ever. And it’s driving us crazy.
In a world of Facebook and having to project a ‘brand image’ of yourself 24/7, people are naturally putting all their best moments online. That almost certainly includes you. However, everyone else is then seeing these ‘best of’ moments and assuming the rest of the world is living some fairytale dream that’s been denied to them. This almost certainly includes you, too. We don’t see our peers’ vanishing promotion prospects, their unhappy relationships, their crushed dreams. We see their high-paying job, their loving family, their dream holiday. And we hate them for it. Worse still, we compare what we have to this impossible ideal and kind of hate ourselves, too.
This ‘grass is always greener’ anxiety has been around forever, of course. But now it’s punching us in the face, every hour of every day, every time we go online. And it might just be leading to a global crisis of depression.
3. Posting Photos Online
Interestingly, it seems most of us are intellectually aware that our peers’ online image is carefully cultivated, even if our gut reaction is to feel miserable seeing it. We know this because studies have shown we have a very specific reaction to people who put pictures up online of their lives and what they’re doing. We absolutely hate their guts.
Back in 2013, a joint study by several UK universities found that ‘oversharing’ on Facebook caused people to alienate some friends and lose others entirely. It basically comes back to what we were saying in the last point: your awesome holiday photos make your ordinary life seem like the most-amazing life ever. This inspires a gut reaction in all but your closest friends and family, who feel pangs of jealousy at your rainbows-and-unicorn-blessed life. Even though they know you’re crafting an image, they like you slightly-less for making them feel that way regardless. Over time, this can grow into real resentment.
The irony is, those same people feeling resentful are likely posting the same photos anyway. By this point, we pretty much all do it. This creates a never-ending cycle of jealously and resentment that’ll probably never end.
2. Telling White Lies
Picture the scene: your girlfriend/boyfriend/significant other has just bought a new dress/pair of skinny jeans. They try them on and ask you “does my butt look big in this?” What do you say?
If your answer was along the lines of “no way, hot stuff! Your butt is perfect,” then congratulations. You still have a partner. But not everyone would agree you did the right thing by telling that little white lie. In fact, neuroscientist Sam Harris would argue that, by not telling the truth, you’re setting your partner up for a hideous fall.
In his 2013 book Lying, Harris argued that white lies deny our loved ones “access to reality.” This causes them to act on false information (like going out in a pair of tight shorts that really don’t fit), which can lead to negative consequences (getting openly laughed at by their peers). The bigger the white lie, or the more of them there are, the bigger the fall can be. In short, by declining to tell the truth, we might be hurting our partners and friends more than if we’d just admitted that their butt was a little on the large side.
On the other hand, if you’ve just been dumped for calling your partner fat, don’t come crying to us. Even when telling the truth, remember a little tact is probably in order, bro.
1. Googling Information
Today, we have all the information in the world at our fingertips. In under two minutes, every single person reading this can look up the third emperor of Rome (Caligula), the population of Luxembourg (543,202) and the weight of Mars (6.39 × 10^23 kg). Only a couple of decades ago, that knowledge would’ve required a trip to the local library. But there’s a downside to all this easy-access information. It’s making us stupider.
Because of the easy way we can access information, our brains have stopped holding onto the stuff we look up. While in 1993, forgetting the population of Luxembourg would have required another boring afternoon at the library to get that information back, now we simply have to whip out our phones again. Our brains recognize this. Instead of storing information, we’re now more-likely to store where to find that information. In essence, our knowledge is just being dumped in a big, fat box in our brains marked ‘Dunno. Google it.’
At the same time, this flood of information is causing our attention spans to decrease. In 2000, the average attention span was a paltry 12 seconds. Now it’s an even-paltrier 8. It’s estimated that this century may see the first time that global IQ scores fall in history. We may have access to information to make us all smart, but paradoxically, it may be making us dumber.