Positive Reinforcement May Be Key to Healthy Habits

A little more carrot and a little less stick may be the trick to maintaining a balanced diet, exercising more, and drinking less. That’s according to a new study from an international team of psychology researchers published in the journal Psychology & Health.

Generally, there are two kinds of motivation people use to keep up healthy habits. The positive kind has to do with the feeling of accomplishment you get from going for a run, eating your broccoli, and cutting back on vices. The negative kind is about the feeling of guilt and failure that comes with not doing these things.

So the researchers asked: which type of motivation is more powerful? Is seeking out the feeling of accomplishment or avoiding the feeling of guilt a better motivator for healthy living?

To shed light on this question, the researchers tracked 744 people, surveying them about their progress implementing healthy routines in their life and their intention to engage in healthy behavior in the future. The three healthy behaviors the researchers focused on were exercising, eating well, and drinking less.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that feeling good about one’s progress was a better predictor of intentions to maintain healthy behavior in the future. That is, people who felt good about their progress reported stronger intentions to keep healthy habits compared to people who felt bad about their progress.

The researchers then followed up with a second study to see if encouraging people to either feel good or bad about their progress would affect their commitment to healthy eating. It turned out that when people were led to feel good about their progress, they had more intention of eating healthily in the future than when they were led to feel bad.

There’s a takeaway here for anyone interested in exercising more, eating better, or cutting down on the booze: the positive reinforcement of acknowledging your progress is more powerful than the negative reinforcement of worrying about your lack of progress. Focus on your accomplishments, and you may find that the discipline necessary for maintaining healthy habits comes more easily.

Image: Flickr/John Watson