Second, if you ask people why they might exercise and improve their diets, few will say, “I want to be happy.” It’s common to hear that people want to improve their appearance—which presumably means they think it will enhance their well-being vis-à-vis the increased attention and admiration of others. This, however, turns out to be a mistake. Although it is true that becoming more attractive is linked to greater well-being, the effect is so trivial that it can’t possibly pass a personal cost-benefit analysis.
In 2013, economists at the University of Texas at Austin studied a large sample of people from the U.S., Canada, Germany, and the U.K. They calculated that a particular percentage increase in beauty results in roughly a tenth as much of an increase in happiness. Here’s what that means: Let’s say you are totally ordinary in both attractiveness and happiness—in the 50th population percentile in each. Determined to become more beautiful, you do enormous work—diet, exercise, surgery, whatever—and move up to being more beautiful than, say, 84 percent of the population. As a result, the UT scholars found, your happiness would rise by only about four percentage points. If you are already educated, working, and married, your happiness would rise by only two points.
Perhaps you will serendipitously discover that your improved diet and exercise have made you happier in and of themselves. But if your well-being depends on being more attractive, are you really willing to maintain a punitive diet and hours a day of exercise to maintain a measly one-percentage-point increase in happiness, compared with other people who didn’t go to all that effort? “All is vanity,” reads the Book of Ecclesiastes. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Or in the gym, for that matter—at which point, pizza and Netflix start to look like a better use of time and resources.
The best approach to adopting a healthier lifestyle during the pandemic is one that eschews both vanity and the futile chase for easy comforts, and then builds a few simple habits on that foundation.
If you have a penchant for potato chips and the couch in times of trouble, consider an “opposite signal” strategy that requires little mental effort. When your mind tells you to numb yourself, come to life, instead: Exercise precisely when you most want to cocoon; eat nutrient-dense foods when you most crave junk. A simple way to start practicing this is to go outside for a walk at the moments when you feel the urge to curl up. None other than Hippocrates called walking “man’s best medicine,” and researchers have long seen it as the cure for many of our physical, psychological, and even social ailments.
This strategy acknowledges the paradox of well-being that so many of us fall prey to: Our instincts are often wrong, and we sometimes need to do the opposite of what they tell us to do. When your mind says, You feel sad—but you’ll feel better if you eat a whole pizza while sitting on the couch watching television, your mind is lying to you. The unhappiness you feel is actually diminishing your brain’s executive-functioning ability, making it more difficult to make good decisions. Pizza and TV won’t make you happy for more than a moment, but what will help now and in the long term is a good walk outdoors.