People sin because something about that particular sin makes them feel good.
When that sin becomes a primary goal and something they engage in frequently (and when not actively engaging in it, they think about it or plan with anticipation how to engage in it), we call it "addiction."
In Torah terms, it’s called a “baal [fill-in-the-blank]”—meaning, the person has become an owner of this negative act: baal lashon hara, baal taava, etc.
(This term can also be used positively, such as a “baal chessed” or a “baal tzedakah.”)
For example, every female I’ve ever met who doesn’t dress in a refined and self-respecting manner does so because the “hot” styles make them feel good.
I once saw a young Yerushalmi Yiddish-speaking woman who was slowly deteriorating in her mitzvah observance. I was stunned to see her show up to a Simcha Beit Hashoeva (Sukkot celebration) in a shocking outfit which included fishnet stockings (!!!). But she obviously had no idea what she represented. She just felt good.
This can be very innocent.
As another example, a woman may genuinely love the color fuchsia and love how she feels when she’s wearing it as a dress, a sequined hair-covering and as nail polish. She’s not thinking, “Ooh, now everyone will gawk at me; I just love attracting stares!”
No, she’s just thinking that wearing her favorite color boosts her mood.
Same thing with long, swoopy eye-catching looks-EXACTLY-like-real-hair shaitels. The wearer simply like how she looks in it. She feels GOOD in that shaitel! Or maybe she also likes the idea of being what her society considers stylish.
A lot of times, just by virtue of being the latest fashion somehow makes something attractive.
I feel it and I can’t help noticing that a lot of people seem to feel it too.
And yes, sometimes it's out of rebellion...which also feels good to some people!
The same mechanism is operating with addictions everyone realizes are bad, like with alcohol or drugs.
But this is also true with behavior.
Why "Scaring" People Doesn't Usually Work
Ditto for people who lose their tempers easily. Again, I was shocked to see that they actually feel good and don't even feel so guilty about their loss of control. The fury is a release of tension and they feel powerful, especially when they see how people cater to them because of their temper.
With bulimics, the physiological result of vomiting is similar to having a really good yell at someone. So if a bulimic feels bad or angry, vomiting gets the physiological effect of screaming at someone without hurting anybody or risking confrontation.
This is why scaring people into being good often doesn’t work, especially for the long term. Even if it does work (or the sinner hits bottom), they often just go on to another negative habit.
Why? Because deep down, people can't stand the thought of living what feels like an empty, boring, or miserable life for the rest of their life.
For example, AA meetings are often filled with people who took up smoking when they quit drinking. And a lot of smokers gain weight when they stop smoking.
Another example: I know parents who stopped hitting their kids and started ignoring them instead.
When Nothing Else Feels as Good
Later, when she went on Prozac and the insulting behavior returned (although now with Prozac-induced exuberance), the other person tried to respond by gently confronting her on the spot each time she did it. Then she gradually cut off contact with her "friend." Later, she decided to speak to her and explain why she couldn’t maintain any further relationship with her (and yes, she did tell her that the Prozac had something to do with her behavior, as a way to give her the benefit of the doubt).
But the errant friend had no idea what the other was talking about and could not think of anything she’d ever done that was wrong. Even as she said this, she still delivered mild put-downs of which she genuinely seemed unaware. (This is called “emotional blunting,” by the way, when you cannot feel how your behavior is impacting another person. It’s another Prozac side effect.)
And the offended party couldn’t push her on the issue because Prozac isn’t foolproof and who wants to be the catalyst if a Prozac-user would end up harming herself in any way?
The truth is, that person can’t get off Prozac. It makes her feel too good. And the friend she kept hurting has nothing better to offer her as far as “feel good” goes. No one does! For her, it’s worth it for her to engage in hurtful behavior of which she claims to be completely unaware and it’s worth it for her to lose a friend. Without the Prozac, she just feels too bad and unhappy and there is NOTHING that makes her feel as good as Prozac.
And I do understand that.
And this is why people can spend too much time on blogs, videos, Facebook, Twitter, the news, or literally anything else. It feels good!
So when you’re trying to influence someone (including yourself!) to change a behavior, it’s important to keep this "feel-good factor" in mind.
And maybe there isn’t anything else in their life that makes them feel as good as…
- pizza and ice cream
- getting angry
- criticizing and nitpicking
- lashon hara
- tight skirts and sparkly deeply orange lipstick
- secular novels
- secular music
- staring at women
- dressing immodestly
- watching cat videos
- reading the news
- anything else you can think of
Caught in a Conflict
For example, fat people suffer health problems and shame about their appearance, but find it hard to diet. Angry or snipey people destroy their relationships and they know that halacha exhorts against such behavior, but they don't stop. And the same goes for all the above behaviors.
You can feel bad about your addiction or sin, but stopping it feels even worse.
And even though people like to wax lyrical about:
- the beauty of sunsets
- spending time with the people you love most in your life
- doing what you love (as a hobby or a career) and so on...
Some people even find these things boring. What’s harder is when the people you love most (like your parents, spouse, children, or “friends”) even make you feel bad about yourself or when your career or hobby proves unfulfilling. It depends.
This is why forming a relationship with Hashem is so important. Talking to Him as if He’s your Good True Friend is vital in conquering your inclination for the lesser things in life.
But having said that, connecting to Hashem can still be a moment-by-moment challenge, especially when the talks feel “dry” or when you’re having a hard time settling your mind and not daydreaming or feeling pressed to do something else.
But I just don’t see another way.
All the lesser stuff has become too compelling and too accessible.
Some of it is even lauded in secular society as a good thing to do.
So it’s really good to just try bonding with God despite all the compelling stuff.
The effort alone is very precious in Shamayim.