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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

Why You Don’t Always Do What You Want

(And how to change this with strategies that don’t cost a thing)

I am a regular listener of The Happiness Lab podcast, hosted by Dr Laurie Santos. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it.

Dr. Santos covers a wide range of self-leadership and positive psychology topics that impact happiness, and interviews experts (like neuroscientists!) to get scientific facts, evidence and advice around behaviours and choices that can make us happier. The thing that makes her podcast great though, is how authentic and relatable she is about how these topics affect her own life.

If there is one episode to listen to, out of the whole series, I think the latest one would have a huge impact on our community members. This is because it is on a topic where a lot of people become ‘stuck’. So often we set goals, have great intentions, are super motivated and then …… it is hard to follow through.

Why You Don’t Always Do What You Want
Why You Don’t Always Do What You Want

We might ask ourselves

  • Have we self-sabotaged?

  • Maybe our goal-setting isn’t aimed at the right level?

  • Is this really important to me at all, since it is so hard to do it?

  • Should it even be this hard?

  • Is it just me???

All valid questions and good self-reflection, but it can be hard not to get down on ourselves, give in and give up at this crucial point.

It is having the knowledge from this podcast episode that can help to shift your mindset, make yourself aware of when your brain is playing ‘tricks’ like justifying your decisions to NOT take action (we’ve all had those days where we don’t get up with the alarm to exercise), and use strategies to still get the hard-but-important-to-me things done.

Dr. Santos talks to experts about:

  • The difference between ‘Type 1’ and 'Type 2' rewards. Type 1 satisfies hedonic happiness and includes those fun and enjoyable pleasures that require no effort whatsoever – think hot cinnamon donuts. Type 2 rewards satisfy eudaimonic happiness and are pleasurable, but don’t immediately feel fun and often have a high start-up effort – think mountain climbing.

  • Our brains are designed to crave or want Type 1 things, through dopamine and specific brain pathways. This can lead us to have strong urges and high motivation to seek out Type 1 rewards and go after good sensory rewards, over Type 2 rewards, which can lead us away from what really makes us happy (i.e., not getting out of bed to exercise).

  • Humans tend to avoid effort where they can, but also seek it out – this choice and control we have to engage in effortful/hard/painful/difficult activities is what gives us meaning, deeper satisfaction and a sense of purpose that links with our sense of self and identity.

  • This hard work takes mental effort to engage in though, so it's more ‘cognitive wanting’ rather than ‘salience wanting’ of Type 1 rewards.

  • The sweet spot between skill and effort required helps to induce a flow state, which pulls us out of our mind and is pleasurable, so a Type 2 reward.

  • There is a large ‘start up’ cost of Type 2 rewards, and this is generally what stops us from engaging in them, as the salience wanting is more automatic and unconscious.

  • Going from the ‘no effort’ of Type 1 rewards (inbuilt, intrinsic motivation), to the effort of Type 2 rewards (cognitive wanting) is tough – there is a gap in our brain pathways between the ‘wanting’ of Type 1 rewards and the ‘liking’ of Type 2 rewards.

  • This is the disconnect – we can cognitively want something (i.e., meal-plan and cook low-carb meals to lose weight) very different to the salience incentives we automatically receive from our brain (i.e., eat another biscuit, that was delicious) to do something that may be in complete opposition to our goals and values.

  • We may experience cognitive wanting, but it does not trigger incentive salience – we have to make ourselves do it versus experiencing the ‘urge’ to do it. Our Type 2 rewards have no automatic craving brain pathways!

Now that you know this, the things Dr. Santos talks about to help us engage in activities that are meaningful, purposeful and important but hard include:

  • Using mindfulness as a key strategy including ‘urge surfing’ the Type 1 rewards and dopamine hit – allow that urge to be there with kind self-awareness and non-judgmentally notice this feeling.

  • Urges tend to last 15-20 minutes, and tend to crest like a wave, coming to a peak before declining.

  • This helps to bring online other skills and strategies by using mindfulness to connect with the present moment.

  • Shift your attention to experiencing vividly all the reasons NOT to engage in ‘Type 1’ pleasures just as vividly as the urges you are getting – counteracting the incentive salience by thinking about all the downsides can help you to ride out the wave and not engage in the activity.

  • Mindfully attending to the benefits of the positive aspects of Type 2 pleasures by savouring the effects of how it feels during and particularly after the activity. This helps us to overcome the effort involved in starting by acknowledge that difficulty is only one part of the whole situation, so this activity can be difficult AND ALSO sits with my values and is rewarding.

  • Mindful focus on this can increase cognitive wanting, but also increase salience wanting, so you start to link to the automatic rewards system in the brain.

  • This is a real thing – research completed around savouring showed people increase their craving for broccoli!

So, the take home message from Dr. Santos was that yes – our brains are wired to seek out sensory pleasures, which can be very different from the cognitive wants we have for our ourselves (self-goal setting).

Engaging in pleasure-seeking type 1 behaviours can sit in opposition to our values and identity (self-knowledge), but knowing this gives us choice and control. We can harness mindfulness to help us ride out urges and help us stop wanting something we don’t really like (self-regulation), in order to build a life we want of meaningful and purposeful Type 2 activities (self-leadership 😉).

Here is the link to the episode if you want to listen for yourself:

Maike x

PS: Are looking for more tools and tips to help you towards your health and happiness goals and want a cheer squad along the way (who doesn’t!?), join our beautiful community on our socials – we’d love to have you. Don’t forget to sign up to my monthly newsletter too, and get free access to our most recent free self-leadership resource.

And, if you are ready to dive into more wonderful self-knowledge activities and learn how to thrive under your own self-leadership, join the waitlist for our FRESH START Program today! The next intake is starting in January 2022 - just enough time to reflect on the goals you have and what you want the next year of your life to look like, and to start FRESH in the New Year with all the support and change-making tools that you need.


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