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The Bright Side of Vanity

What's so bad about using vanity to motivate healthy behaviors?

Image by Min An, pexels, free photos.
Source: Image by Min An, pexels, free photos.

In a 2013 article in The Washington Post, novelist Lionel Shriver argues that what really motivates most people to lose weight or quit smoking, despite what they may say, is not health but vanity—the joy of looking good.

To which I ask: Is there anything wrong with that?

True, there are nobler motivators for changing an unhealthy habit than vanity. In my book Changepower: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, I point out that there are three types of motivators. First, there are the “Eight Great Motivators.” These motivators are lofty ideas that are powerful enough to inspire change. Ideas like “being a role model for my child,” “love,” and “vitality” can lodge firmly in your higher brain, motivate you, and guide your behavior. (The Eight Great Motivators are: higher values (like health), higher goals, love and loving relationships, happiness, self-respect, becoming a positive role model, envisioning a better future, and spirituality.)

In her essay, Shriver argues that ideas like “health” are too abstract to be motivating. That may be true for some. But the results of many studies suggest that just thinking of your motivator can promote determination and willpower. In other experiments, people who wrote briefly about their core values increased their self-control in a variety of situations. Having a higher motivator—like “love of family” or “health”—is not just an exercise in idealism. It works!

The second motivation for healthy changes is avoiding pain. Pain can prod your imagination into revealing the hell that awaits you unless you change. I quit smoking when someone dear to me died of lung cancer. I could imagine myself suffering the same fate, and I changed.

Vanity falls into the third class of motivators, what I call the “not-so-noble-but-still-effective” motivators. But if vanity helps you make a healthful personal change, what’s so bad about that? True, vanity has a sinister, as well as a shallow, side. When it leads to an unhealthy obsession with looks or to eating disorders, there’s certainly a problem. But if you make sure your vanity serves a health goal, you run less risk of crossing over to the Dark Side.

When vanity is linked to one of the Eight Great Motivators, it can be especially helpful:

  • Exercise and healthy eating promote health as well as good looks. There’s a reason why drugstores often combine their “Health and Beauty” sections.
  • The “beauty bonus” can help you achieve your goals at work as well as in your personal life. Frustrating though it may be, people often judge us by our looks, and that's a reality to face.
  • Looking good can be linked to self-respect. Although gazing into a mirror for hours on end can be self-destructive (see article with photo above), so can a complete disregard for your appearance.

While some people might turn down their noses at vanity motivators, I agree with Winston Churchill when he called vanity “that vice that promotes so many virtues.”

(c) Meg Selig

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also enjoy this one on the amazing beauty and health benefits of sunscreen or this one on "The Beauty Premium."


Thinking of core values increases self-control.



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