Few people look forward to a trip to the dentist, and I never have. I hate the bright lights, the cold spray against my sensitive teeth, and the ache of my jaw afterwards. I especially hate it when I’m lying prone underneath those bright lights being lectured about the importance of flossing. I’ve often wondered whether dental hygienists study with detectives or people who interrogate terrorists. In those tense moments under the lights with a hygienist’s face looming over mine, the pressure to floss is extreme. Yet I’ve always inevitably left the dentist never to touch the free sample of floss they’ve foisted upon me. I do, however, replace my old toothbrush with the new one and pack the toothpaste sample away with my backpacking gear. I always brush my teeth, even in the backcountry, but I never flossed anywhere.
Like most Americans, brushing my teeth every morning is a habit that I don’t have to think about. In the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes how the entrepreneur Claude Hopkins exploded the toothpaste industry and increased toothbrushing nationwide by linking clean teeth to a beautiful appearance. Removing the film from your teeth made you more attractive; the process of brushing your teeth was thus linked to a visible and tangible reward. Moreover, people craved the tingling sensation of the Pepsodent brand of toothpaste, which strengthened the habit formation. Now brushing your teeth in the morning isn’t even something most people think about: it’s automatic.
While toothbrushing is engrained in the everyday habits of most Americans, flossing is not. According to one study, only 40% of Americans floss daily while 20% never floss. I was definitely someone who never flossed. Who enjoys flossing? It’s often uncomfortable, and sometimes you bleed, and 14% of people would prefer to scrub a toilet than floss their teeth. If you’re like me, it’s difficult to get the floss between your teeth because they’re wedged so tightly together. Many a dental hygienist has remarked about the difficulty of flossing my teeth. Beyond the logistics of wrangling a piece of floss between your teeth, flossing also lacks an identifiable instant reward, such as the tingling sensation of toothpaste. Because those unpleasant interrogations by the dental hygienist happen every six months or so, they aren’t frequent enough encounters to inspire real change.
So how do people change their habits and become flossers? Some people can make the conscious decision to begin flossing after lightning bolt moments of clarity. Gretchen Rubin describes such a strategy in her book Better than Before. For me, that’s how I decided to become a flosser. Because I have fibromyalgia, I often feel like my health is not within my own control; I hurt all the time. Some days I hurt worse than others or have more energy, but the pain is a constant and querulous companion. In a visit to the dentist earlier this year, I updated the hygienist with my current health history, including the then new and overwhelming diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Moments later, I was back under those fluorescent lights being lectured about the importance of flossing. I knew about those benefits from repeated lectures in the past (removing plaque and tartar buildup and thus preventing gingivitis, periodontal disease, and even heart disease), but this time, I was struck by the realization that this was something that I could control about my health. I could not get rid of the daily pain and fatigue, but I could floss. Why shouldn’t I take back some control over my life and start flossing? Zap! Instant lightning bolt.
Unfortunately, the lightning bolt strategy does not work for everyone because you need that instant zap, that moment of clarity, to effectively make a lifestyle change. Even though I had finally decided in that moment to make a change and become a flosser, I still wanted to successfully engrain the habit. In Duhigg’s book, he discusses how linking a new habit to an old one increases the likelihood of success in habit formation. So, I placed my container of floss alongside my toothpaste, and every time I reached for my toothpaste, I saw that floss. Seeing the floss acted as a reminder that I needed to floss. Instead of grabbing the toothpaste, I told myself that I needed to floss before I could brush my teeth. After all, if I brushed my teeth first, it’s easier for me to fall back into my morning self-care routine and move onto my next automatic process. By linking my flossing to my teeth brushing and insisting that I floss before I brush, I could better ensure that I would create and stick to my new habit of flossing daily.
I now floss every single morning. The first time I had to buy a new floss container in the store, I was a little giddy about it. I had to buy floss! I pack floss along with my other toiletries whenever I travel, even when camping (though admittedly not when backpacking). In my life with fibromyalgia, I cannot fully control many aspects of my health no matter how hard I try. Flossing, however, is something that I can control, and taking back any element of control has been a worthwhile endeavor. As an additional perk, the dental hygienist no longer lectures me about flossing.
It doesn’t matter how healthy you are or aren’t; taking control of your life is infinitely rewarding.