Can we hack our own behavior to make changes without making New Year’s Resolutions? Yes, and while the idea of hacking things is overused, it sounds better than self-manipulation, so and let’s find out how.
A lot of people have New Year’s health goals that are stuck in a rut that can be summarized as: “lose weight.“
Or sometimes they may have the somewhat more bold resolutions to: “lose weight and get in shape.”
While this is probably a noble goal for a lot of people, it’s not particularly inspiring.
Why is “losing weight” not inspiring?
Because it takes a long time to feel any kind of “feel good” reward when our goal is losing weight. And what does “get in shape” mean really? Often we don’t what that means for us personally.
The truth is that most resolutions are really about us desiring to feel better about ourselves, not necessarily wearing a certain size of jeans. We make resolutions to change our behavior, because it feels good to say “I want to change, here’s my goal” even if we don’t really have much of a plan to make it happen, other than maybe: “Watch what I eat, and get more exercise.”
But that brief feel-good buzz we get when we say “My resolution” is often the only reward we feel, because the real reward for our change is often too far off in the distance to compete with the rewards for the everyday behavior we already have.
In other words, our own internal feel-good reward for “losing weight” is soon replaced by “have another slice of cake”, because that hits our reward centers with way less work.
Which is why experts suggest…
We can feel good about ourselves by understanding our own reward centers and hacking our own behavior
I’m a big believer that healthy behaviors have to hit those brain reward centers ASAP to help us stick with them. Why? Because healthy behaviors have to compete with so many neutral to unhealthy behaviors that also hit our reward centers quickly.
What’s a reward center and why do they matter?
A reward center is a region (or regions) in our brain that light up when certain circuits (neurons activating together) and associated chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) interact in our brain, in response to stimuli (experiences), expectations of pleasure, and even the release of pain. (You can use pleasure center or reward center interchangeably.)
A great example of a reward center is the pleasure we get when eating our favorite foods. Eating food will usually stimulate our brain pleasure centers through the action of the brain chemical Dopamine. (Dopamine is a very prominent feel-good chemical in the brain.)
And in fact, they say eating refined sugar lights up our brain on MRI scans brighter in more areas than many addictive drugs.
If you believe people are motivated to either seek pleasure and avoid pain (as many, many psychologists do) then we can plan to use our own reward/pleasure centers to encourage our own positive behavior. You might say, to hack our own behavior.
(For the psychologists and neurobiologists that have found their way to this article: I understand that I’m presenting this information in very simple terms, and the description of the process may not reflect the new complexity of the relationship between neuroanatomy and human behavior with regards to pleasure and pain (1).)
We have two options when it comes to hacking our own behavior
We have two options when it comes to hacking our own behavior: (1) we can try to re-program our pleasure/pain center associations; (2) we can plan to stimulate our pleasure/reward centers in healthy ways before we resort to unhealthy behaviors.
Okay, this is probably a bit of an oversimplification, but let’s go with it for a minute: What would this look like?
For option (1), it means we use the pleasure/pain theory of human motivation to program ourselves to associate pain with behaviors we don’t want (overeating, smoking, etc) and pleasure with behaviors we do want (working out, getting more sleep, etc.)
Does reprogramming pleasure/pain centers work?
Yes, especially if we believe we are doing something morally right (we are the good people), contributing to the common good, or have reached the point where we no longer have any option but to start seeing our pleasures as causing pain. Let’s look at one recent example.
All of us have recently experienced this reprogramming.
We learned to associate something we used to find pleasurable (going to dinner, attending a concert, gathering with friends/family in community) with the fear/pain of either getting sick, or getting someone else sick and holding ourselves responsible for their illness and potential death.
Through reprogramming our pleasure/pain centers it is possible to alter our behavior, even on a mass scale. But it can take a lot of work, or the right catalyst to bring us to the end of our rope in order to be open to associating pain with pleasurable behaviors.
And what about option two?
How can we plan to stimulate our pleasure/reward centers in healthy ways before we resort to unhealthy behaviors?
The principle is simple: The brain will seek pleasure and reward…so make healthy pleasures easy to access, and make the unhealthy pleasures harder to access.
Many scientists and activists believe that entire industries (entertainment and food for example) thrive on lighting up your pleasure centers quickly and easily.
Some say they program their apps and add chemicals to our food to create behavioral/reward dependency. And they plot and study how to get themselves on your shelves at home and on your handheld device so when your brain goes into pleasure seeking mode, their product is ready to deliver.
To be fair, others say that there is no conclusive evidence technology nor food processing can influence behavior, and there is nothing to worry about.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to presume that there are people out there reading this who want to limit their relationship with smart devices and certain food products and have found the process difficult…Difficult to the degree that they might call it an addiction.
(See: Trapped – The secret ways social media is addictive, or Your Brain on Apps)
So, for example, if you don’t want to scroll through Facebook in order to seek the pleasure of connection, you’re going to need to have a plan to connect with someone, before your brain starts seeking that pleasure.
Likewise, if you don’t want to reach for the cheap sugar, you’re going to need to have a plan to stimulate another brain reward center before the cheap sugar-pleasure starts demanding attention.
Positive behavior hackers know what makes them feel good, and recognize when their brain is going to want to feel Good, and act before they’re tempted
Put simple, positive behavior hackers engage reward centers with healthy options before they rely on the unhealthy ones.
For example, let’s say it’s common for you to start looking for a sugary snack and pour your third or fourth cup of coffee around 3 pm. Let’s say you don’t want to keep dropping a quarter to a third of your daily calories on this popular snack time.
The healthy behavior hacker might choose to diffuse a citrus essential oil, play faster, upbeat background music while working, and move to a standing desk before that sleepy afternoon craving has them running out to Starbucks for a Macchiato.
The behavior hacker’s sugar pleasure centers will light up with the sweet smells of the oil – an alternative reward. And the caffeine/energy centers won’t fire as hard as the brain is distracted by the pleasures of the music, a different kind of brain reward. And with standing the brain’s sensory system will move to a more aroused state as the balance/posture mechanism takes over.
It may seem silly at first to hack one’s own pleasure centers, but it’s definitely easier to deliver an alternative reward to the brain than it is to rely on the will power to deny a reward center any pleasure.
Think about it this way:
If person A’s plan for getting healthier in 2021 is a resolution is “lose weight by spring” and person B’s plan is to find and use three alternative brain awards for their constant snacking, my money is on person B for actually losing weight.
Leknes, S., Tracey, I. A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure. Nat Rev Neurosci 9, 314–320 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2333