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Why Weight Loss Doesn’t Promise Happiness

There are any number of amazing reasons to lose weight that will offer incredible benefits in the long- and short-term. You’ll be in better overall health. It’s very probable that you’ll live longer and have more vitality in those years [1]—particularly if getting in shape was part of your weight loss strategy. You’ll enjoy more energy for the people and activities you love. You may have more or preferable clothing choices. You’ll have a better chance of kicking many prescription drugs to the curb (and save a little dough in doing so). To boot, you’re likely to experience less chronic pain [2] and a better night’s sleep, etc., etc. All that said, let’s be clear on something: weight loss isn’t a guaranteed stimulus to your personal happiness. Here’s why.

It can seem like an affront to all we hope. “If I’m at a healthier weight, that means I’m healthier, which of course means I’ll be happy!” The media and commercial images tell us so. Every check-out kiosk is lined with celebrity tell-alls sharing the boon of weight loss [3] to the happiness of said personalities and their families. Television and online commercials tell the same stories. A spokesperson loses weight and thereby has the life he/she always dreamed of.

I’ll be the first to admit that for some people it really does work this way—but there’s more to those situations than people think. Weight loss and the resulting health enhancements can top off the natural contentment and confidence some people for the most part already have. Alternatively, it becomes a catalyst for psychological work that matches the same vigor as their physical transformation.

For many people, however, neither of these is the case, and therein lies the disappointment.

A University College of London study [4] followed nearly 2000 people who received instruction for improving health and managing weight. At end of 4 years, 71% remained the same weight, 15% had gained at least 5% body weight and 14% had lost at least 5% body weight. You’d imagine that the 14% group would be the happiest of the bunch, but not so. In fact, they were twice as likely to be depressed as those in the other groups. Even when the study team accounted for health conditions and key demographic and psychological (e.g. bereavement) variables, the weight loss group still fared the worst in terms of personal happiness and overall well-being.

It’s true that other research findings don’t necessarily concur, but they complexify the question. In one study [5], obese subjects who lost significant weight (again, more than 5% of body weight) reported better mood along with sleep. However, temporary improved mood doesn’t always correlate with overall happiness.

Another study brings to bear additional considerations. The National Weight Control Registry enrolls participants who have maintained a 30+lbs weight loss for at least a year and defines “clusters” of subjects based on personal history, employed strategies and common attitudes. An analysis project of 2,228 enrollees showed those in the cluster that struggled most with ongoing weight maintenance and used the most outside resources (e.g. commercial weight loss programs, health care providers) reported significant issues with stress management and demonstrated higher depression rates. (PDF [6])

This is, of course, no surprise, but it underscores the phenomenon of weight “cycling” and highlights the issue (as well as quality) of outer voices in a person’s weight loss experience versus inner motivation [7]. Weight lost doesn’t always mean loss maintained—or a struggle eased. Nor does it suggest a sustainable psychological underpinning for healthy and happy living.

In fact, the opposite scenario might be the more consistently true. University of Adelaide researchers designed a four-week “positivity” pilot study [8] that promoted self-esteem, gratitude and general happiness rather than weight loss. Despite the lack of focus on physical health, half of participants actually lost weight during the study, and three-quarters of those shed additional pounds during the three months following the program.

In my observation over decades of training and coaching people, genuine (long-term) health change—regardless of what it is but maybe especially if it involves the commitment of substantial weight loss—requires a solid foundation of self-efficacy and self-respect. If that’s lacking, no number of pounds lost will ever fill in that gap.

In fact, weight loss can impose unexpected challenges. We might feel more “on display” for public comment (regardless of how positive). We might feel exposed and saddened or perplexed [9] as to why we’re somehow worth more attention or accolades now. We might feel like all of our expanded “worth” is suddenly tenuous and vulnerable.

Many people, particularly those who lose considerable weight relatively quickly, don’t know how to process the incongruity between the image they’ve had of themselves for so long and what they now see in the mirror. I’ve heard people call it an out-of body experience and even the reason for an almost deliberate weight regain.

The fact is, we all come to tell or believe stories about ourselves [10] over time. Maybe it’s been over the course of our entire lifetime that we’ve seen ourselves one way, or maybe it’s something we’ve “settled into” over the last several years, but we come to a set point of physical appearance/activity level, social roles and personal perception. When one changes, we can get uncomfortable even if we and others believe our changes are for the better.

Likewise, other issues in our lives—whether it’s an unhealthy job situation or a floundering relationship or some other source of discontent or anxiety—won’t be fixed [11] just because our outward appearance changes. Even the uptick in energy doesn’t automatically upgrade our outer circumstances.

Because the pounds only mean so much. Even in terms of health, fitness says more about mortality [12] than weight does, and in terms of life happiness, our current weight (unless it’s debilitating us each day) is one of many inputs we process in a day.

Sure, we invest in our well-being every time we eat a good Primal meal or fit in a brisk walk over the lunch hour, but we do the same when we take 20 minutes to meditate in the morning, enjoy time with a good friend, or take in a gorgeous sunset.

There’s a reason I consider the Primal Blueprint an awesome approach for weight loss, but not a weight loss program per se [13]. The Primal Blueprint is about living better, healthier and happier—right now whatever your weight today (or age, health condition, fitness level, etc.). It’s literally about cultivating the good life from all essential angles [14]. The Primal mind doesn’t measure joy in pounds, but in experiences, connection, adventure, flow, self-actualization, creative endeavor and exploration, nourishment, and belonging.

It’s little surprise when we reset our lives toward these priorities and offer ourselves the sustenance that fuels us best that we find a source of energy and motivation to live well in our bodies and happier in ourselves.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Offer your comments on the weight loss-happiness connection/disconnect, and have a good end to your week.

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