Let’s start with a simple question: If you are hungry, distracted, and rushed, and someone places two bowls in front of you—one of brown rice and baked potatoes, the other of peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish—which one would you choose? If you are like most people, you’d probably choose the candy.
This is by no fault of your own. The candy is engineered—from the flavor to the texture to the bright colors—to appeal to your brain far more than the brown rice and potatoes. For over 99 percent of our species’ history we lived amidst scarcity. Thus you, dear reader, like me and everyone else, evolved to seek out high-reward, low-energy-needed-to-acquire goods. This strategy worked well for hundreds of thousands of years. But now, in modern times of abundance, it is backfiring. Like so many things, what works, works—until it gets in your way.
The above analogy of brown rice and potatoes versus peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish is one that I used in The Practice of Groundedness to discuss the challenge of choosing deep-focus work and connection over superficial distraction and stimulation. But since the book came out late last year, I’ve realized the analogy extends far beyond just that. In many areas of our lives, things that are not as satisfying now tend to be more satisfying and leave us better off later. If living a good life in ancient times of scarcity is about seeking fast-reward, lower effort goods, then living a good life in modern times of abundance is about seeking slow-reward, higher effort goods. Scientists call this the evolutionary mismatch, when strategies that were once adaptive to a species become harmful.
Once you become aware of the evolutionary mismatch you start to see it everywhere. Overcoming it is key to being grounded in an increasingly frantic and frenetic world.
In a 1995 study of the then current diet of most people in developed countries, the nutrition researcher Susanna Holt concluded, “The results therefore suggest that ‘modern’ Western diets which are based on highly palatable, low fiber convenience foods are likely to be much less satiating than the diets of the past.” I suspect this has only gotten worse in the last 25 years. And it is no longer just the food manufacturers and engineers who are taking advantage of our hardwiring.
Here are just a few examples of the brown rice and potatoes versus peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish tradeoff that most people face every day: junk food vs. nourishing food; deep-focus work vs. distraction; scrolling social media vs. reading a book; porn vs. intimate relationships; retweets and likes vs. building a deep community; heavy drinking vs. abstinence (or at least drinking in moderation); day trading speculative assets vs. slow and steady investing in stable funds; immediate and cheap consumption of nearly everything vs. living on a habitable planet.
What all of these examples have in common is that the former require less activation energy, feel good immediately, and feel crappy later on. The latter require more work up front, feel not so great immediately, and feel wonderful later on.
The challenge is choosing the brown rice and potato activities when doing so requires overriding your basic biology that evolved over millennia. This is compounded by the fact that western economies are set up for short-term profits not long-term fulfillment. As a result, we are bombarded with products, services, and marketing aimed directly at the part of our brains that crave immediate-reward products, services, and experiences. Consumerism feeds off the evolutionary mismatch and traps us in a cycle of seeking shallow pleasures that have short half-lives. In turn, we seek more shallow pleasures. This cycle may be good for the bottom line but not for our health and happiness.
The big question, of course, is what can we do about it? How can we live a good and wholesome life amidst so much junk and candy?
Simply being aware of the evolutionary mismatch is a good start. When you can identify and name something it gives you a certain kind of power over it. Next, you can take an inventory of your own work and life and begin sorting activities into the brown rice and potato bucket or the peanut M&M and Swedish fish bucket. The goal is to increasingly shift your time and energy into more nourishing activities.
Another important thing to be mindful of is that in-the-moment willpower is rarely, if ever, enough. Trying to choose brown rice over peanut M&Ms is especially challenging if you’ve always got an open bag of peanut M&Ms in your pocket. You may laugh and say that’s ridiculous, but for many of us, an app-loaded smartphone is just that: an open bag of peanut M&Ms in our pockets. Rather than try to overcome the evolutionary mismatch in the moment, it is better to get upstream and not put your brain in the position to consume the equivalent of candy all day. The more you can design your environment to favor brown rice and potato activities, the better. (This is precisely why I have no social media apps or internet on my phone. This simple—though quite hard at first—change has had an enormous impact on my life.)
Unfortunately, there’s also this: choosing brown rice and potatoes over candy is made even harder because evolution also programmed us to experience fear of missing out (FOMO), especially in social situations. Thousands of years ago, FOMO worked to our advantage, ensuring we’d always be in the know and never miss an opportunity to share a meal with our tribe or hear about lurking predators or a warring faction nearby. Now, however, FOMO keeps us glued to our screens; addicted to news, relevance, retweets, and likes—all of which, when consumed heavily, have little (if any) marginal benefit and cause anxiety and restlessness.
Fortunately, the brain is good at learning. Once we start to shift more of our time and energy toward brown rice and potato activities, especially if we can make it through the first month or so, we start to feel pretty good. This effect is compounded if we undertake the journey with others—a big part of why groups like alcoholics anonymous are so effective. This mix of gradually feeling good and social support—which counters FOMO—makes it easier to overcome the evolutionary mismatches that are all around us. Just as doing shallow and superficial activities can create a vicious cycle, doing deep and meaningful activities can create a virtuous one.