Abstaining vs. moderating

I really enjoy Gretchen Rubin’s blog (and book) The Happiness Project. For one thing, I find Rubin quite inspiring; she’s another former lawyer who abandoned the law to become a writer, and she turned a personal betterment project into an incredibly successful (and lucrative) happiness empire. She also sent me a very kind and encouraging email when I wrote to her telling her that I, too, wanted to leave the law to seek a career in writing, which was so nice.

I think much of what Rubin says about happiness jives with me because she comes at happiness from a bit of a Type A, planner’s perspective, which resonates strongly with me, an ESFJ personality type who loves control and order, and also because one of her fundamental tenets is to know thyself, which suggests that everyone’s formula for individual happiness is going to be a bit different. The idea is that if you know your own preferences, weaknesses, and ways of being, you can better make choices for yourself that will boost your happiness. In other words, one happiness size does not fit all. I love that. It’s so empowering, this idea that we can tailor our choices to maximize our own happiness, isn’t it?

My happy place
My happy place

To help people to get to know themselves better, Rubin offers a number of quizzes that are designed to help identify certain fundamental personality traits that may have a large bearing on happiness. One of these quizzes is: are you an abstainer or a moderator?

The first time I took this quiz, I thought, “I am a classic abstainer. I do really well when I make temptations off-limits to myself, and I thrive on bright lines and rules.” But after the last few months of experimenting with abstention from alcohol and other foods, I’m starting to question whether the abstainer-moderator divide is really so black and white. As I was doing my month-long detox from alcohol, for instance, I felt empowered by its starkness. Completely cutting out booze was not that hard for me, but I felt sure that it would have been difficult to only allow myself one drink at each social occasion, for example. While I still think that may be true on the margins, now that I’m off the detox, I’ve found moderation with alcohol to be far easier than it’s ever been in the past. I’ve lowered my tolerance significantly, so now it’s easy for me on a night out to have one or two drinks and then stop, rather than three or four. So I’d say that alcohol is now firmly something that I’m able to consume in moderation.

However, there are some things that I absolutely cannot do in moderation. Frosting, for example. Non-organic peanut butter. Honey-mustard pretzels. Raisins. (I once had a run-in with a Sam’s Club industrial sized bag of raisins at a friend’s house during a high school study group session. Oh, the stomach cramps.) The list goes on (unfortunately). With other foods, though — chocolate, cookies, candy — it’s easy for me to have just a little and then stop. This strikes me as odd, because it seems that the part of my brain that allows me to have one bite of chocolate should be the same part of my brain that regulates peanut butter consumption, and yet, put me in a room with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon, and all hell will break loose. Why can’t my brain work the same way across foods? Dammit, brain! There’s undoubtedly some deep, dark psychological reason for this inconsistency, but it honestly might just come down to the fact that peanut butter is so gall-derned delicious.

In any case, thinking about abstention vs. moderation is a useful exercise, not only when trying to lose weight, but when thinking longer-term about happiness. I know that in the longer term, I am much happier when I cook healthy meals at home, even though going out to a restaurant for a decadent meal may provide a very short-term happiness boost. Learning to balance the enjoyment I get from going out to eat with the satisfaction I feel from eating wholesomely at home is one of the things I’ve gotten better at over the past several months, and that’s a good thing. I consider it a sign of progress that I am able to float between abstention and moderation, choosing one strategy or the other depending on the situation. But there are still slip-ups. To err is human, right? Anyway, I guess this is all part of growing up. One of these days, I’ll figure it out (hopefully before I die of a peanut butter overdose).

So what are you, an abstainer, a moderator, or something in between? And am I the only one who loses my sh*t around those Snyder’s honey-mustard pretzel bite things? (Thanks Gretchen Rubin for the food for thought!)

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