Free Will, Conscious Choices and Personal/Organizational Wellness?

At the intersection of roads. The symbol is to make a choice. Female figure. Selective focus.

Do we truly live in a world involving free will? Of course… right?? At any specific moment, I am free to select a new course of action, chart a new path, or change directions. At least I like to think I can? But is that reality or simply a mythical creation of our culturally independent time? And, depending on our conclusion, how does the answer influence both our personal wellness and the design of organizational and community health & wellness strategies?

Through a strange coincidence, two books that could seemingly not be more different, written in different centuries by authors with almost diametrically opposed backgrounds and addressing unrelated topics found their way to the top of my current book stack. One covers 185 pages, was written by theologian Jonathan Edwards in 1754 and wades deeply into the question posed by the title: The Freedom of the Will. The second tops out at 415 pages, was written by neuropsychologist Mark Solms and explores everything from neuroanatomy of the brain to subconscious and conscious behavior in his 2021 book The Hidden Spring. Yet, the two (unexpectedly) pair together like freshly grilled salmon and an oaked Chardonnay, laying a fascinating foundation from which we can effectively explore our personal wellness journeys and organizational benefit strategies.

Edwards defines our Will early in the text as “that by which the mind chooses anything.” He then essentially works backwards, exploring the string of motives or influencers that drives each stage leading toward the supposed free choice available for the will to select. He eventually leads the reader through the Calvinist/Arminian debate surrounding the concept of necessity (whether those choices are for all intents and purposes pre-determined). My initial response was to shrug it off (because of course we have free will)… But remember – I was simultaneously* reading the Solms book.

Dr. Solms spends the initial chapters introducing the reader to the neuroanatomy of the brain, in particular the often-confused roles of the cerebral cortex (the large, cauliflower-looking portion of the brain that sits superiorly) and the brainstem (sitting at the base and connecting to the spinal cord). He delves into extensive and developing research indicating emotions – the way we feel about something and not just the sensory input itself – drive consciousness. He takes seriously the influence of emotions (which he references as affect) on our choices, making them (how we perceive input – not just the inputs themselves) the basis of our conscious experience and resultant self-regulation of our physiological state. In other words, it’s not the physiological input of cold or the sighting of an eagle but rather how we feel about those that drives our complex decisions and actions.

He goes on to remind us that when a felt need (not just an external sensory input) appears, we “do not discover that world afresh with each new cycle.” Instead, our feelings (affect) about that input moves it up or down our priority list and then our memories and experiences activate internal predictions about the consequences of potential actions. Therein lies the key to our voluntary (vs. automated) actions: determining our action plan in the face of uncertainty, mediated by the consequences. Such voluntary actions are tiring as the brain consumes approximately 20% of our energy resources and the more mental automation, the more energy is reserved for other tasks. Bottom line: the more predictability in our lives, the more efficiently we function (essentially on autopilot).

So what? How is any of this related to our personal wellness or the way in which organizational or community health & wellness strategies are implemented?

For better or worse, routines and habits are, by definition, on autopilot. While I may technically have the “free will” to make a cup of chicken noodle soup upon waking tomorrow, the odds are almost 100% I’ll instead make a cup of coffee. Edwards would generally refer to this occurrence, based on the prior intrinsic and extrinsic motives, as “necessity” and Solms “automatic.” However, if instead I wake up in the face of uncertainty – maybe the electricity in the house is out – or there’s a coyote standing in our kitchen – then I switch out of autopilot and into voluntary mode.

Even then, I’m not functioning from a clean slate. My memories and experiences guide my next step, and that next step is then mediated by how the resultant consequences influence my affect (feelings about such results). In the case of the electricity being out, it’s happened before. I have a high certainty a phone call and a few hours of patience returns us to a homeostasis (where expectations are in line with reality). By contrast, the coyote in the kitchen would kick me into a hyper-awareness state. Personal memories and experiences with coyotes are limited to crossing paths when out running or hiking, when the toss of a rock in their direction returns life to normal. The kitchen?!? Any sense of predictability is lacking, immediately shifting me into fight/flight (hopefully not freeze) mode to protect my family, our dog and myself. That hyper-awareness, even if successfully returning life to homeostasis (normalcy), is exhausting. The likelihood of a highly productive day at work, choosing highly nutritious food the remainder of the day or nailing a solid gym session that afternoon is reduced exponentially. As a result of addressing this unexpected occurrence, I’ve emptied my fMT** bank account set aside to address the range of voluntary choices for the day…

There are a multitude of variables within the above examples, but let’s drill down to the question on the table – do I truly have absolute “free will” and how does my answer drive personal, organizational and community strategies? Let’s start broadly and work our way inward…

If a person lives in a world with high predictability, then the ability to reserve excess energy to devote to (what we’re calling) voluntary actions is reasonably high. If I wake up to a safe, quiet home, have nutritious food readily available, dependable transportation for my commute to/from a safe, comfortable, low-distraction/low-conflict office where I earn an income matching or exceeding my personal budget, return to that home where I feel safe and loved by those around me (anyone picturing a Hallmark movie yet?), then yes – I can reasonably be expected to eat nutritious food, engage in regular physical activity, limit my alcohol intake and arrange for a high quality sleep.

But is that free will? Or is it automatic (Solms) and a product of necessity (Edwards)? What happens when on just one day, I’m awoken repeatedly by sirens in the streets, OR get a flat tire, OR have my boss yell at me for something unrelated to my work performance, OR get a call over lunch from my child’s principal regarding his suspension, OR receive an alert indicating an overdraft charge on my checking account OR walk in the door at home to a roommate who’s mad at me (again)? Same me – but in light of any of these – let alone multiple – occurring, how likely am I to do expend energy on (non-automated) exercise, nutrition sleep or alcohol consumption? Am I truly “free” to act as I will? Or do extrinsic factors in the world around me (not to mention upbringing, personal history, modeling and expectations around me, etc) predetermine 50, 70 or 90%+ of my actions?

This is clearly a complex subject that deserves revisiting in the future, and we’ll plan to do so if this sparks interest. However, based on what we’ve discussed to here, what are some key initial take-home points? 

  1. Start by looking for ways to establish consistent homeostasis.

a. Individually, rather than jumping on board the latest diet, exercise or supplement fad, consider zooming out and examining your life as a whole. Where are the storms most often occurring? What options do you have available to you that would boost the confidence you have about the predictability of your day/week/month and minimize the frequency and magnitude of those storms? Are there any small steps you can take that would minimize the occurrence or influence of those storms in the future? 

b. Organizationally, what steps can you take to enhance that same homeostasis for your team members? Rather than organizing a “steps contest” for your team, what if you instead launched a predictability contest for your leaders, challenging them to reduce the number of meetings by 35% while locking in the times/dates for all remaining meetings a minimum of 60 days in advance? Perhaps instead of fresh donuts in the break room, what if employees could be confident fresh apples were always available (Cost issue? Check again)? What if, instead of paying for gym memberships (which the data shows is a wonderful benefit for those already going to the gym but does not change utilization long term for non-gym users), you incentivize employees to engage with a credible (nationally board-certified health & wellness) coach who can help further enhance personal homeostasis in a one size fits one manner?

2. Next – align individual “voluntary” (as compared to automated) expectations with the available budget. Important note: this has nothing to do with money and everything to do with personal capacity based on the above discussion.

a. Individually – start by stopping.

i. Stop comparing yourself to others. Right here – right now. It doesn’t matter what your friend, sister, co-worker, or neighbor is doing. The ONLY thing to keep on your radar is the person you were yesterday. Much of my PhD work** focused on the mental capacity we have available for such voluntary pursuits. Once you’ve taken steps to enhance your homeostasis, then you can gradually shift the intended trajectory of those voluntary pursuits in an upward direction. Have you established ways to minimize some of the storms? Excellent – now let’s look for that one step forward today.

ii. Example – Instead of concerning yourself with the “perfect” nutritional plan for your life, what if you simply concentrate on automating a healthy daily breakfast. Once that’s on autopilot, then perhaps look for similar opportunities to do the same with lunch. Within a few months (or less), 14 of your traditional 21 meals/week will have been moved to automatic!

iii. Example (Part II) – Instead of (literally “instead of” – not in addition to) nutritional changes, what if you put sleep at the top of the list initially. As with the above, you’re not looking to mimic the experts, you’re looking for #BetterThanYesterday. Mindlessly doom scrolling social media in bed until midnight? Ok – I get it – but maybe we set an alarm to shut it off at 11:45 tomorrow and 11:40 the following night and so on. Sleep is a momentum game, producing large benefits with each incremental adjustment, so you’ll likely sense this early and make further shifts more quickly. However, even if it’s just 5 minutes/day, you’ll (very) soon be in a good place and reaping the rewards on multiple fronts.

b. Organizationally – tap into the incredibly personal nature of health & wellbeing. 

i. In terms of coaching, one easy way to distinguish between a credible health & wellness coach and someone who simply calls themselves a coach is role of advice in the discussion. An experienced, board-certified coach rarely gives advice, instead focusing in on drawing out the individualized “answers” from that individual! The fake coach has a laundry list of “steps to success” that might sound good but rarely produce long-term, meaningful change.

ii. The same concept can be applied to the way in which organizational leaders, HR and benefits managers conceptualize the optimal health & wellness strategy. Rather than focusing time, money, energy and expectations around “answers” (newsletters, lunch ‘n learns, webinars, and contests), consider ways in which you can provide a buoy or fuel to help each individual address a single area of emphasis that is important to that person at this particular moment in their life. Yes, this approach involves more than hitting “send” and tracking attendance, but the outcome can potentially be life-changing (and thus ROI/VOI driving).

All of which takes us back to the original question: do we live in a world where we have absolute free will? It’s a more difficult question to answer than expected when I sat down to crack open this pair of seemingly unrelated books. Sensory inputs, memories, pre-established motives, chemical reactions, and related feelings (or affects) influence in various ways the supposed automatic and voluntary choices I’m making moment by moment. Does that translate “free will” to something more along the lines of “freed will” – or the availability of the energy required to move voluntary actions forward? If so, does our level of the second concept (freed will) vary based on the circumstances in which we are living?

These are complex questions that require further analysis and discussion. Stay tuned, and if the intrinsic and extrinsic inputs shift my affect to voluntary action to revisit this subject (or if it aligns with necessity?), then we’ll delve further into the subject together in the future.

*By “simultaneous” I am referencing a personal routine of consistently reading a trio of books interspersed together over time. While details vary, typically one will be a recent release, one prior to my life (1966) and one wildcard. For the curious among you, at the moment of this writing, the third book to accompany the two noted above in the current trio is a translation of Dante’Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (Dante’s Inferno), written in the early 1300’s.

**fMT represents Functional Mental Toughness, as referenced in our research, such as this article.

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