We’re not a month into the new year and I bet many of you are already breaking your well intended New Year’s resolutions. Don’t feel badly. Resolutions are like diets: they’re made to help you feel good in the moment, but don’t have the legs to take you the distance. Read on to find out how science explains why resolutions don’t work.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an authority on the brain’s pleasure center, says, “We all as creatures are hard-wired…to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that’s delayed.” Get it? Our brains have evolved in such a way as to prefer instant gratification to delayed reward. You’re not crazy when you go for the chips rather than grab your coat to take a brisk walk, or when you swing by Wendy’s rather than head home to cook a nutritious meal.
The culprit is the pleasure-sensing chemical called dopamine which conditions your brain to repeatedly want the same pleasure/reward. In fact, the dopamine-rich part of our brain actually memorizes the activities that are linked to reward, so that these rituals and routines actually trigger automatic behavior. Dopamine is the primary force in establishing a habit and as science tells us, neurons that fire together, wire together.
But, please, don’t give up hope. Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives at the University of Pennsylvania, offers some proven tips on changing ingrained behavior: 1) Do new behavior (eg, exercise) repeatedly at the same time every day to get the brain to recognize it as habit; 2) Look to exercise rather than food to get that feel-good feeling; 3) Reward yourself in non-food ways for positive behavior; 4) Watch out for stress causing you to revert to old brain patterns; 5) End rituals that lead to behaviors you’re trying to eliminate (eg, watching TV and eating).
Remember, the human brain evolved to help us survive when food was scarce and hard to find. We needed that blast of dopamine after eating high-fat, high-calorie food to reinforce our food-finding-and-eating behaviors so that we’d do them again and again to survive and thrive. Nowadays, with food so yummy and accessible, dopamine reinforcement is no longer essential to our survival, but this trigger mechanism still drives our eating. Now, we have to override our dopamine reactors by using the higher functions of our brain. You can break the food-dopamine-reward cycle by taking the five steps named above, but you will have to do them repeatedly and at length for them to become habit. Eventually they’ll be as automatic and rewarding as reaching for food.