Monday, June 13, 2011

Lose Weight, Save Money and Experience Happiness…Really!

A couple of days ago, Beth and I were driving home from a school gig. As we crossed the Croton Resevoir, we turned on WBAI and began listening to an interview with Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University professor. Her words made a significant impression on us, so I’d like to share some of her findings.

But first, a little detour…

Lately, we've been researching and writing a new assembly tentatively titled, “Sharing, Spending and Saving”, a musical program about money. We were commissioned by the Newark Library system and PNC Bank to perform the show for young children beginning in September 2011.

In addition to writing songs about currency and counting, we'll also examine relationships and encourage dialogue in the classroom or at home about what we each value. Our belief is that having these discussions will help kids make better choices about managing their money – whether it’s their current allowance or their future paycheck.

But let’s tune back into that radio interview…

As we drove, I learned about new discoveries in brain research that pertain to our work as educators and parents. Dr. McGonigal and her colleagues have been re-evaluating the part of the brain traditionally labeled, “the pleasure center". Together, they have discovered that our brains are even more susceptible to messages than at first thought. (I'm not surprised. Just take a look at those sticky buns in my last post!)

What’s new is that our so-called pleasure centers are not so pleasurable. In reality, it’s a place where wants get magnified, sometimes way out of proportion to our real needs. Instead of just thinking about a bun, for example, we begin looking for bakeries on both sides of the street. Our brains shout out, “STICKY BUNS! NOW!” and we get the message that we had better answer that craving right away. Food, according to Dr. McGonigal, is the number one trigger for this behavior. But it can be about sexuality, alcohol, drug use or my particular weakness, shopping.

How hard is it to hold onto my wallet when I am being told by my brain that it’s an emergency to satisfy a craving? Very hard. In fact, this same part of the brain is responsible for addictive behavior that can literally ruin us, socially and financially. On the other hand, it’s also the part of us that’s responsible for our willpower.


Once we know how the brain works, we can look for ways to stop these episodes of craving before they drive us to ruin. In doing so, we develop a coping strategy and become stronger. The secret is self-compassion, being aware that we can regain control and act with mindfulness.This can be true if your goal is losing weight or saving money - or in my case, both!

Let's say your weakness is new shoes. You might say to yourself, “No, Donna. You don’t need another pair of black pumps." But here's the new twist, Donna can acknowledge that a part of her brain has been triggered to respond to the thought of shoes with a strong craving. If she senses the craving, she can begin to use techniques learned in yoga or meditation to compassionately return her to a better place. This place is a state of being that recognizes that we can take responsibility, stop the suffering and move on without the new shoes, sticky bun or whatever makes us crave . This process, called "detachment", is a big step, but it's certainly one of the most important things that we can do to love ourselves.


All of us can teach kids about willpower and compassion whether the subject is food, peer pressure or tolerance. For us, we will likely add some new dialogue to our character education program, Do the Right Thing, showing how self-compassion precedes compassion for others. Our wellness program, Beth & Scott's Nutrition Mission, will also be made stronger with some straight talk about how the brain sends us mixed signals while we're staring in the refrigerator.

And what about the money show? If we teach audiences that saving is a form of compassion for ourselves, we can help students avoid buying that new toy that they don’t need.  If we can inform them that malls are pumping the smell of vanilla into the clothing stores (no joke) and offering free samples to excite the part of their brain that craves, we'll help them make better choices with their money.

The more important point made by Dr. McGonigal is that we have to start seeing compassion not as something that’s soft and fuzzy, but as a real strength we can use to help ourselves and our children. 

For more information about Kelly McGonigal, PhD. and her explorations into the mind-body connection, please visit her web site,


Amy said...

Great article, definitely one i need this month... call it parenting teens, menopause or just the summer transition tension, i've been wanting to eat!!
See you in September!?

Scott Bierko said...

I hope so, Amy. We would love to come to Hyannis and experience CMN on the coast. Finances will play a huge part in our decision, though.

Glad you liked the article. Good luck with all of those "fun" challenges! And remember what my coach told me about the fridge, "It's not in there".