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Positive Emotions Facilitate Positive Change

by Beth on August 24th, 2020

Have you been trying to start any new habits lately? Maybe something that will help to boost your immune system, like exercising or eating more plant-based meals? Or something that will protect your mental health, like meditating?

Change is hard, but there is one really important thing you can do to help a new behavior stick: celebrate!

People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad. We often fail to form a new habit because each time we don’t do the desired behavior we feel like a failure. You tell yourself you are going to exercise for 30 minutes, 3 times a week. If you skip one of those days, you beat yourself up for not doing what you planned to do. This undermines your motivation to keep going, because you are wired to approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad. You will abandon a goal if it keeps making you feel bad.

Dopamine is a chemical released in your brain when something makes you feel good. It’s part of the brain’s reward system that helps you remember the behaviors that cause good feelings so that you can repeat them. This means that if you experience positive emotions when you perform a behavior, that behavior will be reinforced. The desire to repeat the behavior will help turn it into a habit.

This is why celebrating each time you perform a behavior you hope to repeat, especially when you are starting out, is so important. The positive emotions you generate will help you stick with the new behavior because it feels good. Now this only works if the celebration immediately follows the behavior. It also needs to feel genuine in order to activate the reward system in your brain for the release of dopamine.

Think about something you could do or say that makes you feel good. How could you celebrate after eating a healthy meal? Not with a piece of cake, please! I sometimes say “Yes!” with a fist pump or do a short happy dance. You can clap, snap your fingers, or take a bow. You might feel a bit silly giving yourself a high five each time you exercise, but it really can help you make it a habit. Instead of being upset with yourself when you don’t meditate, celebrate each time you do!

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