Missed the six-pack abs in six weeks #absperiment series? Catch up with Week 0 ( why), Week 1 (it takes a village), Week 2 (it’s the little things), Week 3 (traveling sucks), Week 4 (early conclusions), Week 5 (the sacrifices), and Week 6 (it’s over).

One year ago, I had six-pack abs.

There’s photo evidence too. Photo evidence that appears much higher in Google search rankings than I’d like, but photo evidence nonetheless. Someday my kids will be convinced I Photoshopped the whole thing. Some days even I’m convinced that’s what happened. But I did it, and now it’s over: I got six-pack abs in six weeks, and all I got was a lousy photo shoot!

But is it really over? More than a year later, and the #absperiment continues to be on my mind. Here’s why.

Six Pack Abs in Six Weeks? Seriously?

I wanted to see what it was actually like to accomplish the infamous “six-pack abs in six weeks” that seems to headline almost every health magazine and fitness DVD. I honestly figured it’d be possible, but I was curious about what sacrifices I would have to make and how they would affect me. Most importantly, I wanted to see if six-pack abs would actually make me happy and, if not, figure out why everyone seems so convinced they do.

The Short-term Impact = Worth It

During last year’s #absperiment, I wrote a weekly article on its short-term effects: exclusion, isolation, and deprivation.It meaningfully affected all my relationships—professional and personal. It sucked—a lot. In retrospect, there’s no chance I’d ever do it again.

I celebrated right after my photo shoot with a burger and two frozen custards. It was raining. And I was struck by how only one person was around to share that moment with me. I was supposed to be celebrating some kind of triumph, a really special once-in-a-lifetime physical and personal achievement. But nobody from Greatist really wanted to hang out with me. None of my best friends wanted to be around the six-pack me. I ate the frozen treats with one hand while holding an umbrella in the other and talked with a buddy about a personal relationship that just ended. Then I went home alone, and for three hours I felt sicker than I thought possible.

But hey, “six-pack abs in six weeks” is a hell of a story! And ultimately, the story has communicated what we’re trying to accomplish with Greatist, that healthy is more about happiness than super-regimented nutrition and exercise.

Healthy is more about happiness than super-regimented nutrition and exercise.

At the time, the thing that surprised me most wasn’t that I was able to get a six-pack in six weeks, but instead how meaningfully the challenge resonated with our community. People didn’t click because of the flashy wording in the post titles and then leave when they didn’t get what they expected. Instead, they understood. They shared stunning comments like this. And it renewed my faith that this whole Greatist thing may actually have a serious shot at helping the world think of health in a new (actually healthy) way.

Long-term Impact = Scary

I lost the six-pack in a matter of days. I spent the next two months eating more or less everything I looked at and returned to my normal, cheerful self. (Literally, I even ate a 7-Eleven Big Bite hot dog just because I could.) My team and friends stopped avoiding me. I could eat guacamole and chips again (even after 9pm!). The article series did really well, even receiving positive press coverage that didn’t try to muck up the message. At the time, I felt the sacrifice was justified.

Today I’d love to say, “Hey, that was fun and weird and crazy, and now it’s over. Haha abs LOL!” But I’m not actually sure it’s over. I still more or less eat anything I look at. I struggle to regularly attend the gym. And even though I feel happier than I did during the #absperiment in general, when I look in the mirror abs-less and back at my normal weight, I feel worse.

Things I continue to struggle with:

  • Rule-Making. Making healthy choices has always been challenging for me, but it’s only become harder since the #absperiment did a number on my self-control. When I’m presented with something I’ve never really wanted in the first place, I literally think, “C’mon, it’s not like I’m still on the #absperiment.” For example, I’ve never really particularly liked muffins. But holy sh!t have I eaten so many mediocre bran muffins in the last year or so. Setting rules for myself, ones I genuinely want to follow, has always been an incredibly powerful tool I’ve used to make healthier choices. But after the #absperiment, I just can’t seem to convince myself to stick to anything, and it scares me a little. Maybe a lot-tle.
  • Food as Reward. Since the #absperiment, I’ve treated food as a reward to an extent I never have before. I’m not sure I really deserve ice cream, candy, and French toast for a tough day at the office. (It’s too bad hitting inbox zero burns zero calories.) Sometimes I want some delicious things, and that’s cool. Sometimes I do think I deserve it, especially when sharing something indulgent to celebrate or to commiserate over tough times. But alone? And not just one pint of ice cream, but three, because I accidentally misspelled someone’s name in an email? After just six weeks of treating healthy food as punishment and indulgences as forbidden fruit, the way I look at food has been profoundly affected. Unfortunately, I’ve spent a year trying to snap out of that mind frame without much success.
  • Body Image. The third thing—and probably the worst of all—is how my post-#absperiment mindset has affected the way I view my body. Even though I’ve struggled with weight on and off for most of my life, I’ve always been a pretty confident guy no matter the number on the scale. And I’ve come to terms with the size that makes me happiest. During the #absperiment, I wasn’t happy at 180 pounds, even though I’d never been so lean and skinny before. But every morning I’d look in the mirror and literally take a picture, watching what progress I made and mentally comparing myself to the day before. Relative to where I was those last few days, my reflection today looks positively fat. And I’m not remotely overweight! I’m actually pretty athletic and, depending on my nutrition week-to-week, I’m right around where I want my weight to be, where my healthy is. But I’m objectively nearly 30 pounds heavier! It’s been terrifically tough to stop judging my own body when I have such an extreme point of comparison.

Ultimate Takeaway = Find Your Happy

I decided to get six-pack abs in six weeks to see the psychological toll it would take. I’m not trying to whine, and I’m not aiming to compare my struggles to anyone else’s. Instead, I’m sharing what I’ve personally learned from six extreme weeks (and the year since) in the hopes that someone might have a glimmer of recognition, an inkling that, “Hey, maybe that thing I did that one time has affected me in more ways than I’m admitting to myself.”

Nobody else is allowed to define what happiness means to meor you.

The conclusion I’ve come to is ultimately the same I came to a year ago, just with a broader perspective and better hindsight:

Nobody else is allowed to define what happiness means to me—or you.

I know that’s easier said than realized. Happiness is something we learn to define not just through nature but also through nurture, culture, and community. What “success,” “beauty,” and “power” mean to you is subjective. But the impact of the silly, human shortcuts we take in pursuit of satisfaction based on what others tell us can reverberate for a long time. A long, long, long time. So be mindful and choose better your way, to whatever happiness means to you—and nobody else.

You don’t need six-pack abs to be happy. And sometimes getting them can make you less happy than when you started.