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What Can a Happy Brain Tell Us About Habit Change?

A happy brain could undermine your desired habit change.

Author, journalist, and fellow PT blogger David DiSalvo has invented a new book category-- "science-help," as opposed to "self-help." His book, "What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite," consists of short, entertaining chapters on how and why our brains, in their search to be happy, can trip us up if we are not paying attention. Since my mission is to provide my readers with useful information about habit change, motivation, and willpower, here are a few nuggets that offer useful "science-help" for habit-changers:

Should you "go public" with your change goals?

Motivational gurus often advise that you tell someone about your resolutions and change goals because you will feel a deeper sense of obligation to act on them. This is called the "public commitment" principle. DiSalvo studied the research and discovered that public commitment does work in general. But it works best for those who fear the disapproval of others. If you don't care that much what others think, you might supplement or replace this technique with more individualistic tools like self-monitoring.

Does confidence in your own willpower help you resist temptation?

Ha! Actually, confidence can lead to your downfall. If you expose yourself to temptation, because you believe, "I've got that old habit beat now," you will gradually deplete your limited stores of willpower. The belief that you possess strong willpower--known as "restraint bias"--may make your brain happy but could undermine your goals in the long run. Strangely, those who are less confident in their own willpower learn to avoid tempting situations, thereby conserving their willpower and making it easier to resist unhealthy food or cigarettes. So, if you are feeling confident about your willpower, be aware if you are conning yourself. You don't want to become your own worse con artist.

Can you "catch" a behavior like smoking or overeating from your friends?

Yes, behaviors are contagious, even when no one is pressuring you to adopt them. Studies of social networks show, for example that you are 61% more likely to smoke if you have a direct relationship with a smoker. If a close friend becomes obese, you are 57% more likely to become obese yourself. A happy brain likes to copy others--monkey see, monkey do--and this response is automatic unless you are paying attention. The moral: Choose your friends wisely, like your mom always said. And if you want to adopt a healthy behavior, surround yourself with those who already have that behavior.

Are high achievers and low achievers motivated in the same way?

Not! Those with high-achievement motivation are fired up by motivators like "winning" and "excellence." Those with less achievement motivation excel when they view a task as "fun," a motivator too light--or should I say "lite?"--for the go-getters. So if you are feeling unmotivated, try the "fun" approach. If you are a high-octane achiever, focus on a loftier motivator.

Can your imagination help you short-circuit food temptations?

Yes, if you imagine eating a treat, your desire for that treat will lessen. According to DiSalvo, "The reason is that to our brains, imagining an action and doing it are not too dissimilar." You can get a similar boost to willpower by telling yourself you can eat the food later, a phenomenon I wrote about here. (When I read these studies, my mind turned to the film, "King of the Hill," based on A.E. Hotchner's autobiography of growing up poor. In a heart-breaking scene, young Aaron cuts out photos of food from magazines and arranges them on his plate, then devours them with satisfaction.)

Despite the title, DiSalvo's general advice is to recognize your brain's natural desires for certainty, rightness, closure, and loss avoidance, and to use that awareness to decide when to make your brain happy and when to take a harder, but more sensible path. It's not always crystal clear how to apply some of the research DiSalvo describes. Happily, the final chapter, "Mind the Gap," fills in the gaps from the earlier chapters and provides a good summary of takeaway learnings.

On the whole, this "science-help" book lives up to its billing. My brain was happy when I read it--and I mean that in a good way!

© Meg Selig. All rights reserved.

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For updates on topics of motivation, habit change, and willpower, like my "Meg Selig" author page here and/or follow me on Twitter.

Source: DiSalvo, David, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite (2011), Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

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