April 3, 2017

New Behaviors Stick When Combined with Positive Emotions

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a big fan of behavior modification scientist Dr. BJ Fogg. Fogg’s behavior change model focuses on three steps: motivation, ability, and trigger.1

I had the opportunity to interview Fogg on a radio show that I do with my colleague Dr. Lise Alschuler.2 During that interview, Fogg went into detail about the three tenants of his behavior change model but that wasn’t the most interesting part of the interview. The most interesting part was a fairly short discussion by Fogg as he talked about the importance of the trigger.

Fogg said, “As you do the new behavior, fire off a positive emotion. Tell yourself you are doing a great job. Smile. High five. Do something to make yourself feel happy and positive about the behavior.” Fogg calls this “the celebration.” He said the celebration is actually what makes the behavior become more automatic and sustainable.

“The celebration makes your brain want to do the behavior again,” said Fogg. “If you are good at firing off that positive emotion, you can make a new habit stick in just a few days.”

Researchers have spent a great deal of time evaluating the impacts of positive reinforcement and behavior change.3,4 How does our own ability to extend a positive emotion compare to an external positive reinforcement? Although I did not ask Fogg this question, my sense is that he would likely argue that external reinforcements are not nearly as powerful as positive reinforcements that come from within. It’s the internal positive emotion that helps rewire the brain.

Fogg looks at changing behavior as a skill—a skill that really anyone can learn. Integrative healthcare professionals are educators at heart. They work hard to facilitate change in their patients when it comes to healthy behaviors. Encouraging patients to actively infuse positive emotions into their new habits is certainly in line with mind-body philosophies embraced by integrative medicine.

Fogg’s insight serves as a reminder to consider making this a consistent conversation with all patients who are struggling to change behavior. The struggling patient can become the practitioner’s prompt to prescribe more pats on the back, smiles, high fives, and words like “I am awesome!” After all, getting behaviors to stick is the secret to successful behavioral modification.

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