Change and the elephant

What happens when you hear the word “change”? Do you smile? Jump for joy? Throw your arms in the air and shout YES? If you’re like most people, probably not. You are more likely to break out in a sweat and head for the nearest exit.

When I think of change, I think of Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006) of a rider on an elephant. Think of the rider as logical brain; elephant as emotional brain. Rider is desire to change; elephant is old habits. When rider and elephant live in harmony, changing direction happens seamlessly. The elephant and rider turn left, turn right, in sync. Change and the elephantWhen there’s discord between rider and elephant, changing direction looks more like:

“Go this way,” the rider commands with enthusiastic energy.

The elephant says, “Not today.”

Decisions to find a new job, stop addictive or impulsive habits, thoughts to let go of a relationship or to start a new one, in other words, change, haven’t got a chance. Like New Year’s resolutions.


David is 25. He graduated from a four-year college two years ago and has been working part-time at a job he knows is not his life’s work. David lives at home with his single mom and sister because he can’t afford to pay rent and his student loan. He spends hours watching YouTube and playing video games (his old habits). David wants to “move on” with his life, move into an apartment of his own, and meet a woman he can develop a long-term relationship with (new habits). He knows that the apartment is going to take some time. So, he’s decided to focus his energies on meeting someone to date. He’s thought about taking a class to learn Italian, or cooking, or salsa dancing. He’s thought about joining a Meet-up for volleyball or bicycling, or just hanging out. He’s looked at online dating sites.

David has thought of many viable ways to meet women. But, he’s not willing or able to take action. “I’ll get around to it one of these days,” he tells his younger sister, who has taken an interest in his dilemma and made one suggestion. “Just do it,” she says.

Well…sometimes, taking action is not that simple.

The risk of change

David wants change. But David doesn’t want to risk losing the comfort of old habits, such as giving up some of his video game and YouTube time and the comfort of his own company. Like warm jammies on a cool day, old habits are familiar and feel good. For a while. Until you want to change.

We can speculate, based on our own experiences, the risks involved. In terms of the rider and elephant, the rider is only thinking about how cool change will be. But the elephant knows that risk means there’s a chance that the outcome will be different than what we hope it will be. Not different in a good way, as in better than expected, but different in a bad way.

“…there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes” (Haidt, 2006, p. 5).

For David and his desire to meet women, the committee might sound like this:

  • “Meet strangers? Are you kidding?” says  the introvert.
  • “No way you’re doing that!” says the stern parent.
  • “That sounds like so much fun!” says the playful child.
  • “Remember that time in elementary school when those kids made fun of you? Do you want that to happen again?” says the wounded child.
  • “No one wants to meet you. You live with your mom! ” says the critic.
  • “Stay home where you’re safe and comfortable,” says the helicopter parent.

You can see how internal discourse can lead to inertia.

The good news

There are several strategies you can try for any change you want to make. Be curious. Think of this as an experiment.

First, become aware of the committee members’ messages. We all have inner voices. Listen to yours. Hear what you’re telling yourself.

Next, evaluate each message. Some are useful; others unhelpful relics from your past. Jot the messages down in your phone or tablet while you’re waiting for your food order at your favorite take-out place. Seeing these messages in black and white can help you decide which ones to keep and which ones you want to replace with more useful messages.

Third, plan ahead. Practice your worst nightmare. Let’s say that like David, you want to meet new people. You’ve gotten yourself to an event where you know no one. You see small groups of people talking with each other. You walk up to one of the groups and no one invites you into the conversation. So you just stand there.

What if, instead of standing there, you planned ahead to say, “Hi. I’m new here and I don’t know anyone. Can I join your conversation?” A little awkward maybe, but you can come up with your own words. Smiling and feeling calm in challenging situations can help too. Now imagine the same scene, but the group opens up and people say they’re really glad you came and want to get to know you. People sense when another person’s mind and body are relaxed. They also sense when mind-body is tense.

Consider the reality of meeting someone new. Some people are friendly and welcoming and some people are snarky and cold. Some people only want to talk about themselves; others have nothing interesting to say. Some people are fun; others not so much. Some people have their own unresolved issues. The kids in elementary school did hurt your feelings. You do have to be aware and somewhat careful about who you develop a relationship with. You never know who you’re meeting.

With change, we generally think about how the change will make us happier. We expect to do better, improve our quality of life, move up, expand, acquire more.

Yet, when the elephant or the less enthusiastic Committee Members and old habits take over, we back away from change.

Tone down the critic

With awareness, you can work towards adjusting the volume of the committee members. Turn up the encouraging voices; turn down the critics and doubters. Be patient with yourself, your committee members, the rider and the elephant. And practice. Change does not usually happen overnight.

“Go this way,” the rider commands with enthusiastic energy. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

The elephant responds accordingly. “Okay. Maybe,” she says.

Remember this: you may have to persuade your elephant with kindness, compassion, patience, and peanuts (Haidt, 2006, p. 38). With as much awareness as you can tolerate, and all the support you can find for yourself, see if you can jump in and try (again). Start small. Mindfulness is effective for developing awareness and calm, as is therapy, support groups, self-talk, and education.


*David is a fictional character; photo from

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.

Jonathan Haidt’s web site