In my work as a psychologist, I so often see people struggling to make life changes that they would really like to make. I encounter the same thing in my personal life. Despite best intentions, and some pleasing results from changing to a healthier lifestyle, it can still be too easy to reach for that cake, that biscuit, that family-sized packet of crisps, or to stay for too long on that comfy sofa.
While it is never simple to make changes, an understanding of some of the powerful forces that shape our behavior can help. Our behaviors are constantly influenced by automatic reactions more than we probably know. Behaviors can be strengthened by one of two processes, positive or negative reinforcement. When behaviors are reinforced, it is unlikely that willpower alone will be enough to help us to change these behaviors in the long term.
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Positive reinforcement occurs when something we do is immediately followed by a rewarding consequence. During, or shortly after something that we do, we feel good. Negative reinforcement is when we stop feeling as bad after something that we do. Intermittent reinforcement, which can be positive or negative, is an even stronger force that shapes behavior. This is when a particular behavior is sometimes reinforced by positive or negative reinforcement but sometimes not. Reinforcement occurs for short term consequences. The long term impact of behavior will not tend to automatically strengthen or weaken any of our habits in this way.
When we understand positive and negative reinforcement it can be easy to understand why it can be so hard to stop some of our bad habits. Take overeating as an example. The immediate consequences of eating a tub of ice cream will often include positive reinforcement (it feels pleasant) and negative reinforcement (it takes our mind off our problems). The long term impact is not good, but this has little effect on how the behavior is reinforced. In fact, if we feel bad about ourselves because of weight and health issues this may well support a craving for more ice cream due to the immediate consequences this has on temporarily relieving our negative thoughts.
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It is always hard to change bad habits. Forming new, healthy habits and making sure that they are enjoyable for us is usually a helpful starting point. These new habits may go some way towards helping us to feel better so that we don’t need to rely on bad habits so much anymore. In time we may be able to recognize the pull towards a bad habit and meet the underlying needs behind it with a more healthy alternative. Increased awareness through mindfulness may help us to detect this pull before it is too strong for us to resist. It’s likely that we won’t be able to do this every time, and we don’t need to. The more we are able to meet our underlying emotional needs in a healthy way, the less frequent our destructive habits will become and the less impact they will have on our overall health and lives.