What is unhealthy thinking

Why do we behave unhealthily despite better knowledge?

Only nine percent of people in Germany live completely healthy.

While there can be an addiction problem to smoking and alcohol, unhealthy behavior such as too little sleep and exercise or a poor diet is often due to neglect and bad habits.

If you want to change your lifestyle, you should aim for realistic goals, advises the psychologist Anja Achtziger: "If you want too much at once, you get frustrated quickly."

Did you sleep eight hours tonight? You are sure to have breakfast with healthy muesli with fresh fruit, go jogging in the morning or ride your bike to work. There you get up every half an hour or work standing up again and again. For lunch you tend to eat vegetables and whole grain products rather than schnitzel and fries. Of course you don't smoke either. And after work you do sports, relax and drink only water and unsweetened tea like you have done all day before you turn off the light on time and fall asleep.

If all of this is actually true: Congratulations on your all-round healthy life. But in this case you actually belong to a minority: According to a study by the health insurance company DKV, only nine percent of people in Germany adhere to the recommendations of science with regard to exercise, diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and stressful behavior.

So the vast majority of us live more or less unhealthily - even though we usually know better. Even people who, in their day-to-day work, see the consequences of unhealthy behavior - such as doctors - are not immune to it.

"Tension between knowledge and one's own behavior"

Take smoking, for example: Almost every smoker should know that his habit not only costs a lot of money, but also significantly increases his risk of serious illnesses such as heart attacks and lung cancer. Chips, candies, lemonade and ready meals don't have a reputation for being particularly healthy either. Nevertheless, every German eats 31 kilograms of sweets and twelve frozen pizzas per year and drinks 82 liters of cola and soda with them.

In social psychology the phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance. According to this theory, people strive for inner harmony and for behavior and inner attitude to match. If this is not the case, this manifests itself in uncomfortable feelings, dissatisfaction or a guilty conscience. This is the case, for example, when people eat conventional meat although they reject animal suffering and factory farming.

Anja Achtziger, holder of the chair for social and economic psychology at the Zeppelin University on Lake Constance, describes it as a “tension between knowledge and one's own behavior”. To resolve this tension, people suppress or ignore information that contradicts their behavior. The “meat paradox” shows, for example, that people prefer meat whose animal origin is more difficult to identify - because there are no longer any bones, for example. Or they look for their own explanations and refer to counter arguments - for example to their grandpa, who has turned 90 despite smoking.

Humans are creatures of habit - that can become a problem

However, one has to distinguish between unhealthy behavior and addiction. "Smoking and alcohol change the brain, so there are also physiological components," says Achtziger. “That leads to considerable addictive pressure. Unhealthy behavior like too little sleep has more to do with negligence towards oneself. "

In addition, people have to fight a powerful opponent: the routine. “We have developed certain habits and we have to put a lot of effort and time into changing them. It's very difficult for us, ”explains Achtziger. Good resolutions, such as for the New Year, often fail within a few weeks. “The reason is simple: people don't think it through enough. I first have to find out exactly what is actually a healthy diet? What is good sleep Then I have to work out a plan, write it down and set myself well-measured goals. That is exhausting."

Many people prefer the quick reward rather than waiting for a later one. The delicious muffin now is more tempting than satisfaction with the weight later. The Netflix series in the evening is more exciting than being well rested the next day. It is therefore particularly important to persevere in order to adapt your head and body to the change in the long term. “We can also get rid of habits. For example, if you eat chocolate every day, it is difficult to do without it at the beginning. But that weakens and we experience a neuropsychological reward effect: I feel better, maybe lose weight, ”says the scientist. This would also weaken unconscious associations in our brain - for example, getting an appetite when we walk past the refrigerator.

The social environment plays a major role - positive as well as negative

Eighties advises aiming for realistic goals. External advice can also help. “The goals have to be set in such a way that they don't overwhelm me. If you want too much at once, you can quickly get frustrated, ”warns the psychologist. “The trick is to increase the goal little by little.” After all, if you want to run a marathon, you don't even start the entire route on the first day. It is similar with the resolution to suddenly live completely healthy “from tomorrow”. “The longer the habit has established itself, the harder it is for us to change it. You also have to endure setbacks and keep motivating yourself positively. That means a lot of work with yourself, ”says Achtziger.

The people around us also play a major role. "We are more likely to think of the negative influence: everyone drinks champagne or everyone eats dessert," says the scientist. “However, the social environment can be very helpful in achieving your own goals. Diet groups can help you lose weight, or sports groups can motivate exercise. Alcoholics Anonymous is also a success story. "

Social norms can also change: while a few decades ago people were smoking next to children and in the office, this has become unthinkable today. The proportion of smokers in Germany has also declined, especially among adolescents and young adults: while 27.5 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds smoked in 2001, it was only 7.2 percent in 2017. It is similar with 18 to 25 year olds: In 2001, almost one in two people in this age group smoked, today it is only around one in four.

Government measures can help

Eighties attributes this to very persistent and decades-long campaigns against smoking, but also to government measures: “I assume that the higher costs caused by the tobacco tax, the heavy and repeated media presence, how many deaths there are from smoking, and the restrictions on smoking in public have led to the decline. "

The situation is completely different with another major health problem: two thirds of men and half of women in Germany are overweight. About a quarter of the total population is even obese, i.e. very overweight. In addition to biological factors and an unhealthy diet, the increasing lack of exercise in everyday life also plays a role. More and more jobs are being carried out sitting down, and many journeys are being made by car instead of on foot or by bike.

In leisure time, Netflix and the Playstation dominate, not walks and sports. This also applies to the youngest: According to a long-term study published in 2019 under the direction of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), three out of four children exercise too little. Wouldn't more regulation help, for example, to oblige canteens to offer healthier offers, to restrict car traffic or to ban the advertising of sweets and other foods for children?

“That would go a long way,” says Achtziger. “But too much mustn't happen at once, otherwise it creates resistance. We don't want to let the state dictate everything to us all the time. With alcohol, however, the awareness and willingness for it has already grown. "