We Have Met the Enemy

Just wanted to quickly share an interesting book I picked up at random while in the library recently (okay maybe not so randomly - the cover image of a donut kind of reeled me in a bit). Daniel Akst's We Have Met The Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess had the potential to be highly informative or extremely bleak. Fortunately, it proved to be the former end of the spectrum.

Akst provides a thorough account of the existing knowledge concerning self-control, from university studies on delayed gratification to centuries-old literary texts evidencing precommitment self-control devices. He introduces us to nearly all sides of the issue through a variety of methodological lenses: psychological, sociological, philosophical, biological, etc. Though he never provides an unequivocal answer to the question of free will, Akst provides readers with plenty of arguments on both sides of the issue in this humorous, entertaining, and highly readable volume. All throughout We Have Met the Enemy readers are posed questions that call for consideration regarding their own sense of control, restraint, indulgence, and the like. 

There were plenty of great discussion points raised throughout the book, but I appreciated what Akst had to say regarding the changing times, in particular the increased demands on our mental ability to exercise self-control. More and more Americans are plagued by obesity, laziness, addiction, exorbitant spending, and the like in this day and age. While we are continually finding new ways to understand such personal problems, whether conceptualizing them as diseases or finding social ills to blame, Akst's premise is essentially that we are lost in a sea of choices among which we are ill-equipped to decide upon. Modern culture is truly an age of excess, requiring more self-control than any other period in history. Society has gone full-steam-ahead while our human capacities for moderating all of these stimuli are evolving at the same old pace. As Akst explains "Modern life simply requires an unnatural degree of self-control, and one of its side effects is self-control fatigue." 

This book won't provide you with fool-proof solutions for resisting a second helping of dessert or keeping your hands out of your savings account, but rather it will offer you hints as to how to do so through the evidence garnered from innumerable studies in self-control. Ultimately the two best methods to employ for optimal self-control are altering one's environment and forming good habits. Akst repeated returns to the importance of outside factors in determining or affecting behavior. Though many of these things may seem outside of our control, there are, in fact, plenty of ways we can prime ourselves for making (and sticking to) the kinds of decisions we want to make. Whether it be as simple as getting a little exercise, changing the lighting in your office, or leaving your credit cards tucked away at home, there are plenty of things we can do to manipulate our environments, and thus, our ability to demonstrate self restraint. 

Furthermore, if we can cultivate positive habits to replace those that run contrary to our self-control goals, we can make our work of self-control much easier. Making it a habit to go for a 30 minute walk every morning is positively-reinforcing - each morning's walk will improve mood and health, while further improving the odds of a walk the next morning - while also a great way to replace negative habits, like sleeping in or not exercising. Changing patterns of behavior until they become so habitual as to be like second nature is another sure-fire method of managing behavioral preferences without having to put up a fight with oneself. 

Based upon academic knowledge and anecdotal evidence, We Have Met the Enemy will get you thinking about the various factors that keep you from doing what you know is best but Akst sprinkles quips and quirks throughout to keep readers interested, engaged, and entertained.

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