Rarely does a week go by when I don’t hear about the need for rewards. Sometimes the subject comes from the media hawking a product. More often, I’m listening to a friend, client, or message board member talking about the need to reward herself.
Our culture is excessively and unhealthily fixated on the concept of external rewards. But, come on, do you really need a reward because you took care of the kids by yourself all day, did a full day’s work at the office, finished your homework, aced a test, or are taking care of your difficult, aging parents? If you feel entitled to a reward for what is normal every day activity, you’re in deep trouble.
The reward system start with parents. We get a smile, hug, or praise when we do something they want us to do like use the toilet, eat with a fork, or say thank you to grandma. Parents must use rewards to train children; they can’t very well tell a one-year-old that he’ll feel better about himself and be proud if he stops crying. Hence, rewards are used to reinforce behavior parents want kids to learn. Grades too are rewards for studying and knowing the right answers because young children need incentives to do what is hard and unpleasant like school-work. Then there’s the media insisting that we reward ourselves with whatever they’re selling. You work hard, you’re a success, so treat yourself, go for it, they croon. What a con: All they care about is tapping into your desire to give yourself something in order to take your money.
The question is why, as adults, we still seek rewards for doing what’s expected. If you study or work hard, isn’t it enough to be doing it because it’s helping you reach your goals, because you feel good applying yourself, because you want to do better? Even if you dislike your job, you don’t deserve a reward at the end of the day; instead, you need to do something about your unhappiness! An occasional treat or celebration for an occasion like graduation, passing the Bar, or hitting the 25-year mark at work is fine, but such events—and their rewards—should be exceptional happenings that have meaning.
Moreover, why choose food as a reward if you’re trying to eat only when you’re hungry? Isn’t food more of a punishment if you’re using it for any reason other than nourishment and fuel? Please think about moving beyond rewards except on occasion. Instead, do what is expected and feel proud of a job well done. If you’re so miserable that you require constant incentives for what you’re doing, change what you’re doing. At the very least, if you’re going to reward yourself, make sure your treat is not of the edible variety.