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Create Your Own Upward Spiral of Well-Being

by Beth on February 15th, 2016

How well are you sticking to your New Year’s resolution? If you’ve been trying to do something you don’t enjoy, you probably haven’t kept it up. That’s because willpower alone isn’t enough to change your behavior. In order to create a new habit, whatever you are trying to do must be rewarding.

My father has always been in great physical shape, but I have never in my life seen him on a treadmill or an elliptical machine. When I was young he played basketball. In the 80’s he was a big racquetball player and then he switched to squash. Now he goes on long walks everyday. He loves nature and clearly enjoys the time he spends outside.

This is a great example of what Barbara Fredrickson has discovered from her latest research. She calls it the Upward Spiral Theory of Lifestyle Change. Fredrickson describes a loop where a wellness behavior, like exercising, leads to positive emotions and those emotions create an unconscious motive to engage in that behavior. This means that if something is rewarding we are motivated to do it. Not so surprising.

The interesting part of the theory is that there is a second, outer loop where positive emotions, in addition to motivating us to act, also broaden awareness and build resources so that the connection between the behavior and positive emotions is amplified. It sounds complicated, but basically what happens is that the positive emotions that my father gets when he goes on a walk become even stronger than they were to begin with. So his walks become an even greater source of happiness, which further increases his motivation to head outside, even on cold winter days.

The bottom line is that you need to find ways of increasing your well-being that are rewarding. If you hate going to the gym, but love to dance, you’ll be much more likely to keep up your exercise routine by taking a Zumba class. If you haven’t been able to find a single type of exercise that you like, then you need to find some way of connecting exercise with something you enjoy. My husband loves to read, so he uses his runs as an opportunity to listen to audio books. I can always tell when he is “reading” a good book, because he runs a lot more often.

What lifestyle change are you trying to make? Find something you enjoy doing or connect the desired behavior with something that will increase your positive emotions. This will lead to an upward spiral that will keep you motivated to stay the course.

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