Want to Get Thin So You Can Be Happy? Put Happiness First. The Pounds Will Start to Slide Off

By Nancy Bryan, Ph.D.

“I’m so unhappy because I can’t get thin.”

If you believe this, you’re setting yourself up for a tremendous amount of frustration and disappointment. That’s because it simply is not true that being thin will make you, or anybody, happy. From a neurological and biochemical perspective, it would be far more accurate to say “I’m not thin because I’m not happy.” 

Through years of research and personal experience, I have seen that lasting serenity and happiness will curb the desire to overeat, causing pounds to slide off on their own. The real challenge is not to get thin, but to achieve this calm-inducing state.

Doing this may sound daunting, but in fact it boils down to removing the two types of obstacles that stand in the way of achieving this highly desirable state of mind.

The first of these is personal: dissatisfaction is our human nature, courtesy of four million years of evolution.  As Patrick Manning explains in an essay in the little book The Way of Gratitude, “We human beings are hardwired to persistently seek the satisfaction of our needs.…we are strongly disposed to focus our attention on what we lack.” 

Unfortunately, this is a habit of mind that keeps us in a constant state of disgruntlement, and chronic dissatisfaction is a surefire driver of compulsive, out-of-control consuming, whether it be food or any other item (behavior that is actually the polar opposite of satisfaction).

The second obstacle, equally powerful, is the particularly dysfunctional way that our culture has come to interpret reality.  In the January 15, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz gave a useful précis of several recently published books on America’s self-improvement mania.  She cites Will Storr’s remarks in his book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed: ”We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills.  People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”  Our evaluations of ourselves are so harsh as to be utterly ludicrous, as Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz pointed out in How to Be Your Own Best Friend, writing that “people think their choice is between being perfect and being the worst thing that ever lived.”  In A Mass for the Dead, William Gibson wrote “[for me] the notch below infallibility was humiliation.”

How does an unrealistically perfectionistic approach makes it particularly difficult to shed one’s extra pounds?  Well, while you are feeling anxious over not being perfect, your body will be undergoing what is termed “the stress response,” pouring out a variety of hormones to deal with the stressful situation (largely self-inflicted).  One of these hormones is named cortisol, whose popular name is “the belly-fat hormone,” because it preferentially directs fat formation to the belly, thereby making any attempt at weight loss harder than it would otherwise be.

In my book, Thin is a State of Mind, I write “Sometimes it seems utterly impossible that we could have driven ourselves onto this joyless treadmill of overachieving.…The sad thing about this failure to believe in ourselves is that, as Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi points out in, The Way of Everyday Life: “It’s like a person with a pocketful of money starving in front of a restaurant because he’s unaware of the money in his pocket.’”

The good news, however, is that anyone, anyone at all, has the choice of jettisoning—just like that—the totally unrealistic and self-defeating beliefs that our culture has been seeking to impose on us.  No one has to be the person starving, unaware of the money in his or her pocket.  A change in how to see that comes before one understands what actions are necessary to reach any goal (losing weight or any other goal) can be sudden and for good. It is like shaking a kaleidoscope:  one moment there was one pattern, and the next moment—out of the same materials—another prettier pattern has come together.  In a wonderful book titled Counterclockwise, Ellen J. Langer spends a lot of time discussing the concept of mindset.  A mindset is a habitual way of looking at the world that can prove limiting to the achievement of one’s potential.  But Langer states over and over, forcefully, that any negative mind-set can be changed, quickly and effectively.

The realization of a need for a better mind-set can allow us to pursue goals of good health and personal attractiveness without resorting to self-criticism or feelings of anxiety, which, as I mentioned, are completely counterproductive, and which impede progress toward our desired goals.  The right mind-set is one that brings true satisfaction: feeding our insides so we are able to do without feeding our outsides quite so much.  All that counts is keeping our peace of mind in the present, because doing that will make it unnecessary to overeat now.  In “A Tangerine Party,” an essay in The Way of Gratitude, Thich Nhat Hanh mentions the concept of “savoring” (i.e., being fully aware of and totally immersed in the sensuous beauty of any experience).

If we want to fully grasp the dimensions of a new serene and happy mindset, we need to become acquainted with the specific tools that can be used to sustain one’s equanimity all during the day, every day.  First consider the Serenity Prayer used by Twelve Step organizations:  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  These few simple words could also be renamed the “serotonin” prayer, because the relaxed, accepting state of mind the prayer recommends is a pathway for the production of serotonin, the “calming hormone,” in the body.  No one could have expressed it better than Fred Rohé in his The Zen of Running: “We create the quality of our own experience.”  (Chinese culture has an advantage in having formulated and embraced the notion of wu-wei (translated roughly as “effortless effort”).)

Meditation is another tool. The practice of meditation alleviates tensions in the mind, and is directly connected with feelings of serenity.  Meditation is not limited to closing your eyes and keeping quiet for fifteen minutes a day morning and evening; your daily practice merely shows you what a serene state of mind feels like, so you can then try to keep that feeling going all during the day.

In addition to daily meditation practice you might consider starting to use a mantra: a short word or phrase repeated all during the day, serving to keep your thoughts on track and your attitude of thanksgiving intact.  My favorite one is “calm and grateful,” since it reminds me at all times of the two major qualities I am trying to cultivate.

I once tried to think of a way to best explain the kind of relaxed attitude you need to have in order to function well in life yet keep the background anxiety in your life to a minimum.  As I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway one day, I saw the surfers riding the waves and knew that this was what I had been looking for.  (John Lilly had discovered this analogy as well, and called it “cosmic surfing.”)  People who want to learn to surf just wade out in the breakers and start trying to ride with the waves that come crashing upon them, wave after wave after wave, without ceasing.  You can’t learn to surf at all if you stand out there yelling, “Why are all these damn waves happening to me, anyway?” 

The only thing that works is just to be out there, since (1) the waves never stop coming; (2) they come in different sizes—some easy, some not; (3) you need to pick ones you can handle and try to sidestep the bigger ones until they no longer overwhelm you; and (4) you need to move with them, not fight them.  Every day you practice riding with the stressful events in your life while at the same time you practice keeping your inner serenity and gratitude intact.

A calm, happy mind is needed for the body to change. When anxiety slips away, you give up asking yourself, “When can I eat next?” — thus you simply eat less. Once a serene state of mind becomes a habitual, ongoing part of your mental outlook, or mind-set, it is practically guaranteed that you’ll find ways to be successful with whatever you are trying to accomplish in life, including losing weight.

Nancy Bryan, Ph.D., author of this revised and updated edition of Thin is a State of Mind (first published in 1980 by Harper & Row, and subsequently by CompCare Publications), has spent her entire working life as an editor:  in the sixties at The Rand Corporation; in the seventies at an ARPANET research institute; in the eighties at a worldwide employee-benefits consulting firm; and in the nineties for the J. Paul Getty Trust.  In addition to Thin is a State of Mind, Bryan has written a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and has ghostwritten a bestselling self-help book.  Her work has appeared in Vogue, Self, Family Health, and various museum and computer-science publications.  She is currently working on a forthcoming title, Metathinking: Working Knowledge for Women.