Good habits harder to keep than bad ones

08/01/2011

That bad habits are hard to break  won’t surprise anyone who’s tried it:

“Why are bad habits stronger? You’re fighting against the power of an immediate reward,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway. . .

“We all as creatures are hard-wired that way, to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that’s delayed,” Volkow says.

Just how that bit of happiness turns into a habit involves a pleasure-sensing chemical named dopamine. It conditions the brain to want that reward again and again – reinforcing the connection each time – especially when it gets the right cue from your environment.

The advice to turn New Year resolutions into good habits so they get hard wired is sensible.

Repeat, repeat, repeat the new behaviour – the same routine at the same time of day. Resolved to exercise? Doing it at the same time of the morning, rather than fitting it in haphazardly, makes the striatum recognise the habit so eventually, “if you don’t do it, you feel awful”, says Volkow the neuroscientist, who’s also a passionate runner.

-Exercise itself raises dopamine levels, so eventually your brain will get a feel-good hit even if your muscles protest.

But this doesn’t change the fact that keeping good habits where the reward is usually delayed is harder than keeping bad ones which bring instant gratification.

Even with the benefit of a Presbyterian upbringing which emphasised the virtue of enduring pain now for later gain, a box of chocolates are more appealing to me than walking shoes.


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