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Exercise & Fitness
The missing rewards that motivate healthy lifestyle changes
- By 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.
About the Author
Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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