The missing rewards that motivate healthy lifestyle changes

Srini Pillay, MD
Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

Follow me at @srinipillay

It’s hard to maintain the lifestyle changes you want to make. It doesn’t matter whether your goal is weight loss, exercise, normal blood sugar, or decreasing stress — research has shown that simply learning about the value of lifestyle changes is insufficient on its own to help people maintain their goals.

Of course, few people are actually ignorant about the number of calories in a chocolate truffle, the benefits of exercise, or the incredible danger, discomfort, and inconvenience of diabetes and stress. Still, despite this awareness, maintaining these changes is an uphill battle. And that’s largely because habits are hard to kick.

The rewards of the changes themselves have their limits. On a cold, snowy day in February, going to the gym is far less appealing than staying in bed for one more hour. And when you return home tired from a day of work, the calories in that extra glass of wine may in fact suddenly turn invisible. So how can you get that extra motivation?

The two types of rewards — and what they can do for you

Despite a growing body of evidence on the value of reward-based systems in promoting health behaviors, they are notoriously ineffective. But these studies generally focus on one kind of reward. Having an understanding of the other category of rewards may provide additional motivation to maintain the changes that you want.

There are two kinds of rewards: hedonia and eudaimonia. Hedonia (H-rewards) includes superficial pleasures such as weight loss, looking good, and acceptance by others. These rewards are more concrete and often short-lived. Eudaimonia (E-rewards), on the other hand, refers to a sense of meaning and purpose that contributes to overall well-being. Connecting your lifestyle goals to E-rewards may help motivate you even more.

The greater the size of a self-processing region in your brain called the insula, the higher your E-rewards. Specifically, if you have a large insula, your senses of personal growth, positive relations with others, and personal purpose are high. It’s not hard to imagine how feeling this way can help motivate you in many different ways, let alone when it comes to making specific lifestyle changes.

E-rewards also motivate you by activating the brain’s reward region, the ventral striatum. You feel less depressed when this part of the brain is activated. In contrast, when you satisfy only your H-rewards (e.g., looking good and getting a massage), this can actually make you more depressed and less motivated in the longer term.

See the video below where I explain in more depths about the different types of rewards.

What are your E-rewards?

To stay motivated, ask yourself how you will enhance your sense of meaning and purpose. They can be strong motivators for achieving your goals. The following are all examples of people with strong E-rewards motivating their decisions:

  • A college sophomore obsessed with pizza and beer starts to eat and drink healthily when she realizes that her career in broadcast journalism will probably require her to be on camera day in and day out, so she needs to look (and feel) her best.
  • A grandfather won’t let anything stop him from going to the gym so that he can have the longest possible time alive to be with his grandchildren.
  • A doting husband ignores most of the buffet table at a cocktail party (except for the veggies and dip) because he knows that he wants to be there for his wife and kids.
  • A young woman decides to start skipping dessert when she recognizes that her work on eliminating poverty is too important for her to undermine her own well-being in any way.

It’s not just the service or job that inspires E-rewards either. The story is a little more complex.

The concept of E-rewards can be traced back to Aristotle, who believed that the highest level of human good was not about satisfying one’s appetites, but about striving to express the best that is within us. This could only really be achieved by self-realization, a continuous process that looks different for each person, depending on his or her unique talents and dispositions.

As Aristotle points out, the first and foremost ultimate goal of all living humans is this feeling of well-being, which must be the primary focus if we are to achieve any of our health-related goals. Contrary to other theorists on the subject, Aristotle points out that H-rewards — good friends, wealth, and power — help as well. Yet, there is more to it than that. To truly feel E-rewards, you need to feel like you are flourishing in your life. In this inspired state, you are more likely to be motivated to achieve your goals.

To start this process, ask yourself how much of your day you spend in activities that nurture this sense of self. According to Carol Ryff, there are six areas of your life that you can reshape to enhance these E-rewards: greater self-acceptance, higher-quality relationships, being in charge of your life, owning your own opinions even when others oppose them, personal growth, and having a strong intrinsic sense of purpose. If you work on these factors, you will likely feel more intrinsic reward, and therefore enhance your motivation to accomplish your lifestyle changes as well.

We tend to focus on H-rewards to motivate ourselves to achieve our goals. But E-rewards may offer an additional focus to maintain your motivation for the lifestyle changes you desire.

 

Comments:

  1. Janice Tollini

    That is a fascinating article. Thank you so much for sharing! It also makes sense in an intuitive level. My boyfriend has no desire to eat healthy or to exercise, while I do it for the sake of my health and overall well-being, not to fit into a smaller size. I can’t wait to tell him that my insula is larger than his!

  2. Chris Maloney

    Great article Dr. Pillay, thank you for sharing!

    Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

    With that said, we are social beings, organized into small groups (typically a family unit), how can we use your work to harness the power of small groups to help change society?

    For example, 70% of the population is overweight, 80% of medical costs are behavior related, etc. I feel these stats are the result of bad family (not necessarily individual) habits, traditions, beliefs, lifestyle, etc. – how does your work with individuals apply to families/small groups? Would love to hear your thoughts, thank you again!

  3. Reizeik

    Now this is what I call motivation! Yes I agree that there are two types of motivation, one for a greater cause and the other is self-serving. Whenever I feel that E-rewards I always feel that I can do and achieve anything. Thinking that I should improve myself to create a better me, I can’t help but think now about the new workout and diet that I read from consumerhealthdigest. I’m literally smiling right now. Thank you so much Sir Srini Pillay for this wonderful post.

  4. Cecilia Wong

    It took me a long time to realize how to make me happy was to not think about me – but about others.

  5. Roo Bookaroo

    A sense of purpose is paramount.
    This is how Mary Shelley (1797-1851, published her novel “Frankenstein” in 1818, at age 21) phrased it:
    “Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye”
    All her life, she was motivated and driven by a “steady purpose”, even though that purpose could change radically, following the various critical events of her tumultuous existence.

  6. Linda Grant

    Cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, choice of foods….these are all addictions. If you have an addictive personality then I feel you need to have something real to bring you back to earth. My kids did it for me with smoking. It’s okay not to care what other people think about you, but when it comes to your kids….they live what they learn. Important to remember….you are the role model.

  7. Kara M.

    As a female in todays society I can relate to the idea of constantly wanting to improve my body figure, but as a college student I can also most definitely relate to the lack of motivation to work out and eat healthy after a stressful day of classes and work. Your article is beneficial for both men and women trying to accomplish a long last positive change for their bodies! Being a health science major I learn about the proper way to treat your body physically, but until your article I was never introduced to mental aspect of E-Rewards. Learning about what truly keeps a person motivated long-term was a very interesting read, thank you!

    • Srini Pillay

      Glad that resonates Kara. Societal pressures are so different from inspired health. The latter is what flourishing is all about. You’re already way ahead for realizing the disruptions that stress can bring. Spread the word whenever you can. It helps to be reminded of this.

  8. Srini Pillay

    Really glad that this resonates. And especially glad to have a community of thinkers who are dedicated to thinking about this. Thank you.

  9. Justin F.

    Very useful for all. I fully agree and will pass it on!

  10. Jeannie

    Great read-thank you!

  11. Barbara Marie

    One of your best articles, Dr Pillay!
    Thank you for the insights, the exercise and the examples. My intention is to once again flourish by reshaping those six areas of my life. I’m seeking to know my intrinsic sense of purpose because I like rewards of any type… E-Rewards included.