The Hidden Rewards that Motivate Healthy Lifestyle Changes Long Term!

May 04, 2018

Excerpts from Srini Pillay, MD article on Harvard Health Publishing

Most of us recognise the benefits of getting fit, losing excess weight, reducing our stress levels and maintaining a healthy balanced diet. Despite our best intentions, it can be hard to maintain our efforts to improve these areas long term. Unfortunately just picturing ourselves as fitter, slimmer, less stressed and eating well only produces a limited amount of motivational force to actually constantly do something about it.

If we think of our motivation level like money in a bank account, when we first decide we must get fit the motivation level tends to be high, so our account is high. Each day we draw some from our account to say, get up early and go exercise. Just imagine how much motivation you need to resist staying in bed on those wet freezing cold winter mornings. If there is not enough motivation left in our account we simply stay in bed. Once we give in that first time, our motivation level drops even further and before long we just skip exercise altogether.

So it is fair to question, are we doomed to fail given the hidden forces we must face to overcome these compelling obstacles that are ever so present? The good news is, not necessarily according to Srini Pillay, MD. He explains that there are two types of rewards (motivational forces). “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. Pillay suggests that connecting your lifestyle goals to E-rewards can help top up your motivational bank account after the initial H- rewards have been depleted.

If the cold wet winter mornings are only just demotivating enough to stop you from keeping that regular morning exercise going, a fortifying E-reward could just be enough to keep topping up your motivational balance high enough to handle those temptations in whatever form they come, favourite chocolate bar, high paying-high stress job you should turn down for example.

Pillay highlights that, “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.

The hidden distinction is this suggests Pillay, “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.”

So to stay motivated, Pillay says we should ask ourselves how we will enhance our sense of meaning and purpose. These E-rewards can be strong motivators for achieving your goals

Here are some examples Pillay gives 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 realises 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 recognises that her work on eliminating poverty is too important for her to undermine her own well-being in any way.

E-rewards don’t just need to be job-related to inspire us, and there is more to this. Philosophers since and including Aristotle have identified that E-rewards are about tapping into the highest level of human good rather than just satisfying our appetites. It’s about tapping into the best that is within us depending on our unique talents and dispositions. Pillay suggests that “In this continuous growth we achieve self-realisation. 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.”

“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.”

So how do we start this process? Chances are if we identify we need to get fit, lose weight, de-stress or eat more balanced we may not feel we are flourishing in life.

To start this process, ask yourself how much of your day you spend in activities that nurture this sense of self. Pillay sites Carol Ryff, author of Happiness is everything, or is it? Who suggests there are six areas of life that we 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,
  • having a strong intrinsic sense of purpose.

When we work on these areas we will likely feel more intrinsic reward and therefore boost our motivation to accomplish our health and lifestyle goals as well.