Posted July 4th, 2011 in Blog.
This past week I finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 Stumbling On Happiness, an interesting book about why many of us aren’t very good at imagining what will make us happy in the future. Gilbert, who is a psychologist at Harvard University, discusses many of the scientific studies that have been done on humans’ ability to predict the future. The verdict, it turns out, is that we simply aren’t that good at it.
The book outlines a list of reasons why the future, once it actually arrives and becomes our present, is usually very different than we imagined it would be. One major reason for this is that our brains are incredibly good at adding key details and filling in missing information to our imagined futures, even though these additions frequently have no basis in reality.
For example, who hasn’t imagined what life would be like if we won a $60 million lottery? I bet most of us think life would be just about perfect! A mix of exotic vacations, large homes, and the freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want.
But pause for a minute to think about what we don’t actually know about this imagined scenario. For example, what will your health be in the future when you win the lottery? Will all your loved ones still be alive to enjoy your fortune with you? What if the money causes conflict in your marriage and your spouse leaves you?
The point is that our brains are trained to fill in the missing details of imagined futures. In this hypothetical lottery example, without you consciously knowing it, your brain imagined that your health would be great, your love life would be unchanged or better, you’d be able to live whatever kind of life you want, and things would certainly be better than they are today. And you might be correct. But then again, you might also be wrong. As Gilbert notes in the book, human beings are frequently wrong about how happy they’ll be in the future if certain things happen to them. Our predictive abilities just aren’t that good.
So what are we to do in order to more accurately imagine the future? The advice Gilbert offers is to use other people’s experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it. Talk to people who have been in those situations before. Don’t rely on your imagination, which is frequently incorrect. Using our example, you should talk to people who won the lottery, and see how it changed their life. Was it dramatically better? What challenges did they face? Only then will you get a clearer picture of what winning the lottery actually means for your happiness.
So why discuss this topic in a blog for people with IBD? I’m guessing that a number of you reading this have recently been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. If that’s the case, you’re probably going through the exercise of imagining what your life will be like living with a chronic disease. Perhaps you’re imagining the worst, anticipating that your future will consist of periodic hospital stays, physical pain and discomfort, and social anxiety. Maybe you’re predicting that IBD will steal away much of your future happiness.
Before you go down that road, I want you to remember Dr. Gilbert’s advice: before you predict your future, talk to people who have lived through similar experiences. This is incredibly relevant for people diagnosed with a chronic disease. While it is important to listen to your doctor’s advice, it is absolutely vital you talk to other patients. Find out what medications they tried, and whether those medications worked or not. Did they bring about remission consistently? Find someone who has used dietary modification or integrative medicine to treat their IBD. How did this compare to their use of conventional therapies? The more people you talk to and the more questions you ask, the closer you’ll be to predicting what life might be like with IBD.
I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis more than ten years ago. In those days following the diagnosis, I was certain that my life was never going to be the same. I imagined it would be much worse. I had also committed myself to the idea that I would probably have to sacrifice the career I had wanted and some of my athletic activities in order to maintain my health. The future I had imagined for myself was one of disappointment and compromise.
But I turned out to be wrong.
In the weeks following my diagnosis, I researched and read about integrative medicine and dietary approaches to treating IBD. I talked to people who followed corrective diets. I talked to people who used stress relief therapies. And I took a giant leap of faith that changed my life. I decided to change my diet and lifestyle in order to combat IBD. That decision put me on the road to recovery. As it turned out, my future was better than I could have ever imagined.
However you ultimately choose to treat your IBD, I hope that each of you makes your decision armed with sufficient information. At Food Rx, we offer you the opportunity to speak with one of our volunteers – or me personally – about various complementary therapies for IBD. I’m always happy to share my experience with you. Of course, my story is only one story. Talk to others, as well. Interview people who have used medications as part of their treatment program. Talk to patients who have followed other diets. Your goal should be to hear as many perspectives as possible, so you can form your own opinion about what therapies will help you beat IBD and achieve remission.
But make sure you do one thing for me, above all else: imagine a better future than the one you are envisioning right now. You have every reason to believe that the life ahead of you will be rewarding, fulfilling, and full of blessings beyond what you can imagine today. You have options to treat your IBD… great options. And we are here to discuss them with you.
Yours in health,