I love the way Gretchen approaches the idea of happiness in a methodical way. Through her books and her podcast, she gives concrete ideas to implement to try to increase your personal happiness while always mentioning the fact that people are different and derive happiness in different ways. (For example some people feel happier when they make their bed every day while having an unmade bed doesn’t affect others’ happiness in the slightest. I am totally on team Never Make the Bed, by the way.)
Last week, I headed out on an early afternoon walk with Chase and Sadie. Springtime in Charlotte is gorgeous and after working for a few hours during Chase’s naptime, I was craving some time in the sun. The topic of Abstainers vs. Moderators came up on Gretchen’s Happiness podcast and I thought it would make an interesting blog post, specifically when applying it to one’s desire to live a healthier life. I’m in Gretchen’s camp and believe that understanding whether we are an abstainer or a moderator can truly help our desire to live a happier and healthier life.
Abstainers vs. Moderators
First, just in case you are unfamiliar with the concept, here’s a brief breakdown of Abstainers vs. Moderators:
If you’re anything like me, you quickly placed yourself in one of the above categories without question.
It can be easier to figure out whether you are an abstainer or a moderator when you think about it in a certain context.
Moderators succeed more frequently when they make moderate changes and avoid absolutes and defined lines. For example, thought of never eating French fries or chocolate for a month sounds horrible and is enough to immediately turn them off.
Abstainers, on the other hand, have a harder time with moderation and the thought of indulging in something here and there stresses them out more than the thought of eliminating it altogether. Totally removing something from the life of an abstainer is easier for them than juggling thoughts of indulging a little here and there, as they struggle to stop something once they’ve started. Eating a few French fries sounds more limiting to abstainers than not eating any French fries to begin with since stopping something once they’ve started is more challenging for them.
Gretchen notes that abstainers and moderators are often quite judgmental of each other, with moderators saying things like, “It would be better to learn how to manage yourself” or “Can’t you let yourself have a little fun?” while abstainers say things like, “You can’t keep cheating and expect to make progress” or “Why don’t you just go cold turkey?”
It’s important to remember that different approaches work for different people. (There is a very clear exception, however, when it comes to addictions where Gretchen notes that people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.)
The abstainer/moderator character traits often manifest themselves around technology. Some people can play games like Candy Crush, check their phone before bed or watch one 30-minute episode of a TV show and turn things off and walk away without any kind of internal struggle. Abstainers, on the other hand, may have a much harder time turning off their phones at night, stepping away from Candy Crush or watching only one episode of a TV show.
I am, without a doubt, an abstainer. I find it much easier to simply avoid something indulgent than to have “just a bite” or a little taste of technology. To me, just a bite almost always leads to many, many bites, especially if it’s something I love like ice cream and watching just one episode of a show I love like Friends sounds way less appealing than curling up on the couch and watching a million.
I’m the same way when it comes to reading. If you told me I could only read one chapter of a book I’m loving before bed, I’d rather not read it at all because I want to have the ability to read until my eyelids are practically closing.
(Side note: I highly recommend the above book. A great read!)
Ryan is also an abstainer and since ice cream is both of our favorite food in the world, we try not to keep it in the house at all because we know we will never just sit down and have a half-cup serving or two. (Who decided half a cup is a serving of ice cream anyway?) We know this about ourselves and now if we want ice cream, we go out and buy it, knowing full well ice cream will not last 24 hours in our house.
We’re totally okay with eating a ton of ice cream on occasion but know that keeping ice cream in our house at all times would lead to daily indulgences beyond a simple small-bowl serving so we try not to keep it in the freezer at all.
I also think about this in the context of going out to eat at a restaurant. If a bread basket or a plate of sweet potato fries are placed in front of me, I don’t have an off-switch and will typically eat my fair share until the food is gone. The thought of a couple of fries or a small piece of bread sounds horrible to me. I’d much rather have none or have a ton. All or nothing!
I remember once reading a tip from Bethenny Frankel in a magazine about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to eating dessert. She talked about how the first bite is always the most satisfying and how after that bite, every bite thereafter is less and less enjoyable, so she sticks to a couple of bites of dessert and then puts her fork down. She is clearly a moderator!
When I read Bethenny’s tip, I remember thinking, “What!? I love ALL bites of cake. Who can eat just a couple of bites!?” Clearly I am not a moderator. If I’m going to eat dessert, I’m going to eat ALL of that dessert.
Gretchen notes how understanding whether you’re an abstainer or a moderator can increase your personal happiness because you can make decisions that best suit your personality and characteristics.
She specifically applies this to her desire to live a healthier life. As an abstainer, Gretchen doesn’t buy cookies and keep them in her house because she knows she can’t eat just one cookie. The thought of eating one cookie stresses her out more than not having cookies in her house at all since she’s more of a five cookie kind of person. For a moderator, grabbing one cookie on occasion sounds much more appealing than never having access to cookies at all in the first place.
I identify with Gretchen on this one whole-heartedly. I love sweets and don’t eliminate them from my diet at all, but I do try to keep them out of our house. If I really want something sweet, I’ll bake a batch of cookies knowing full well I’ll eat a ton of dough and more than just a cookie or two when they come out of the oven. By not keeping sweets in the house, I eliminate the stress of avoiding sweets on a daily basis from my life. If I really want something, I have it, but I try not to have immediate access to sugary treats at all times because I will always go to town on the sweet treats.
Question of the Day
- Are you an abstainer or a moderator?
- Do you think understanding whether you are an abstainer or a moderator could help you live a healthier and happier life?
I am absolutely an abstainer. If I want something, I want ALL of something! This is interesting to me because I definitely believe in the whole “moderation” approach to healthy living, but to me that looks more like eating a TON of ice cream every once in a while rather than a small bowl of it daily.
I don’t feel 100% either way! I can relate to aspects of each…what does that make me?! (Just crazy, maybe? Haha!)
Mix of both actually! There are so many things I can easily abstain from but there are some that I have to have a little bit every single day! For instance, I can abstain from anything “white” but I have to have a moderate amount of dark chocolate and peanut butter!
Kate | HappyForks.com says
Doesn’t matter if you are an abstainer or a moderator, CARROTS are all you need at home always! LOL.
Actually I think I am a mix between both. Usually I don’t have at home any kind of treats. If i feel temptation to snack I go for carrots first. Sometimes the temptation goes away, and if it doesn’t I still go outside to get something that would satisfy that feeling – but again I am already full of carrots (fiber, vitamins, good stuff!) so I pick something really really small. If it happens that occasionally I have some sweets at home and feel like having it – same trick with carrots gives me time to control the craving and usually let me stop at single square of chocolate.
Samantha @ What's Up, USANA? says
I’ll have to check out her podcast! I’m definitely an abstainer. Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Sam @ Barrister's Beet says
Thanks for the great post Julie! I like Gretchen’s work, too. I am definitely a moderator when it comes to healthy living/eating. Maybe it helps that I’m not a sweets/fried foods person though. I definitely think understanding whether one is a moderator/abstainer is helpful to living a healthy lifestyle. I used to set myself up for failure by not recognizing and accepting that I’m a moderator, and that it is perfectly OK to be that way. I would try a Whole30 or similar challenge, and I couldn’t make it past even a few days. It wasn’t until I took a step back and realized that I eat really well on the whole and “banning” foods just didn’t work for me that I found my “healthy living” stride. I was banning foods that I didn’t really even eat when I was “allowed” to have them. On the other hand, there are people who live for challenges, elimination diets, etc., and it’s also great if that works for them and helps them to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
Emily Swanson says
I’m totally a mix. When it comes to some exercises, I will either go all out or feel like doing nothing. When it comes to dessert, I will abstain from it, but when I have it, I don’t usually feel like I need more than a little bit of it. When it comes to Instagram, I can just go and and go and go, until I tell myself, ‘No, it’s time to have self-control and you can get on later.’
Thanks for sharing this! I think I’ll have to read The Happiess Project, sounds very interesting! I’m glad that so many of us are abstainers, it makes me feel better about myself! All this time I thought it was just me not being “strong enough” to be a moderator!
I know I’m an abstainer when I think of being at staff meetings or parties, when there are bowls or plates of snacks sitting in front of me. It’s much easier to tell myself that I’m not going to eat any chips/cookies during the meeting, than to take one and stop. Once I start, I don’t stop snacking!
I also LOVED the Henrietta Lacks book! I read it in a day or two. I’m like you with books, I don’t read a lot during the week because reading one chapter is impossible! I need large stretches of time to read.
I think I’ll have to share this with my moderator husband so he understands me a bit more! Thanks for sharing!
Really great post! I’m definitely an abstainer as well, but most health articles usually tell you to avoid making things off limits and just practice moderation…it’s great to read this perspective and know that I’m not broken just because I don’t have the willpower to not eat the entire box of Girl Scout cookies if they are there and prefer to keep them out of the house 🙂
masala girl says
this is so interesting! i should put those books on my list 🙂
i think for me, it depends on the topic. when i read the infographic, i felt like a moderator, but i also related it to work. i can’t hardcore focus. i get distracted easily, and have to take breaks ( i used to not be like this in high school. technology + college = bad)
but when it comes to food, i lean slightly more towards being an abstainer. like you, if i have something, i wont eat one serving, whetther i actually want to or not, i’ll eat it all. i’d rather not keep things around, or prepackage/portion them (like dried fruit and trail mix) so i dont grab the container and go all out.
i’m glad you brought it up!
Kelsey Jones says
I’m definitely a moderator. Extremes make me panicky.
Since you love ice cream, you should try Halo Top. It’s kinda pricey for a pint, but it’s lower in calories (around 260 PER PINT. WHAT.) and higher in protein and fiber and is real ice cream. I think they use stevia. I’ve only had chocolate and vanilla so far but they are awesome.
I am absolutely a moderator. And I do think it contributes to my living a healthier life. I can make a pint of ben & jerry’s yogurt last for weeks and just take a couple spoonfuls out at a time. Same for most other snacks.
I cannot, however, delete something out of my diet. If I had to go bread-free for a month I would keel over. So, that makes any weight loss difficult, and I have to be careful of the bread and the beer and check myself on the moderation of those two things.
Really interesting perspectivesby you and by Gretchen. Also, I LOVE the Henrietta Lacks book!! One that is written in similar style but a different subject matter is the Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs.
So I know I’m late to the comments here, but I LOVE this concept. Also, I love how you define moderation at the end of your post. I, too, am an abstainer, and would rather have an entire tub of ice cream once a month than a little everyday. That IS a form of moderation….and it’s what works better for me.