Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Five

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Five of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here.

Whew, what a week it's been for me! My husband has been sick, and just as he was starting to feel better, I came down with it. I've been sick since Monday, but today I'm starting to feel much better. I haven't done any decluttering this week--I've been doing well just to get through each day! I may be able to take on a decluttering project today or tomorrow, and I'm committed to continuing toward my goal!

Let's start with Sonnet's recap of Chapter Five, "The Brain's Big Lie: Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness."

Five weeks in, and this chapter takes on one of the most powerful forces that affect how we respond to temptations. You probably have heard the slang term dope, which comes from dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the reward system in our brain. There’s a reason something as bizarre as a neurotransmitter has made it into our everyday lexicon: a dopamine rush is a very, very potent force; one we all will happily turn our bodies (and homes, marriages, or wallets) over to given half a chance.

What causes dopamine to start flowing? Anything that gives us the promise of reward. This can be anything from food to sex to money to technology to an alcohol buzz to leveling up in your video game. Images or scents of good food do it. The sound of your aroused mate purring in your ear does it. The icon on your phone that says you have a new text message does it. There’s a rush to your reward center, and your brain starts telling you to act now - that this immediate gratification is absolutely what you are after, and bugger everything else.

Notice though, that dopamine works on the reward center of the brain, and not the pleasure center. It produces intense feelings of desire and motivation, not gratification. Dopamine can also cause a significant stress response when we think about not being able to act on our desire. Dr. McGonigal talks about a study where researchers showed women simple images of chocolate while monitoring their brains. The women all showed a ‘startle response,’ reacting with alarm. The women reported feeling pleasure when they saw the chocolate, but also anxiety and a sense of being out of control.

This one observation (that a dopamine rush produces anxiety as well as pleasure) was the biggest “ah-ha” moment for me so far in the book. All of a sudden, I saw with distinct clarity the pattern that has plagued and confused me for years with binge eating. I normally have very little appetite, but when I am anxious and frustrated, sometimes I binge on junk. I have never understood why – it’s not like I am hungry. The explanation of ‘emotional eating’ never really made much sense for me either. But this does, completely. My pattern goes like this:
  • I feel anxiety, and I don’t know how to deal with it.
  • In desperation, I create more anxiety by starting a dopamine rush, looking at or thinking about high-sugar food. I feel huge amounts of tension until I can eat it.
  • I eat it, and whoosh, there is an enormous sense of relief
  • I mistake this for relief about the anxiety I couldn’t solve before
This was huge for me. In the days since understanding this process, my whole relationship with food and with my stress levels has changed. It has only been a few days, and I need to work on finding more healthy ways of relieving anxiety and anger without “doping,” but I think that can be done. This is mind-blowing, life changing stuff!

Speaking of life changing, this chapter had another fantastic suggestion that really reframes the way I look at chores. Dopamine is one of the most effective marketing strategies ever utilized. Businesses use sexy models, half-off sales, scents and sounds to lure you in all the time. The lottery wants you to just imagine what you would do with $1 million. There’s a prize in every box. And we fall for it, all of it – we can’t help it. Dopamine is that strong. So if it works for selling junk we don’t need, why not make it work for the stuff we actually need to do?

Seriously. Imagine a world where instead of blowing your last $2 on a lottery ticket, you were entered in a million dollar prize drawing every time you made a savings deposit or filed your taxes on time. People would totally do that, wouldn’t they? You can use dopamine the same way for a “I WILL” challenge. Having trouble getting motivated to exercise? Try going for a run with the hot guy from across the street. Doing homework? It’s always easier with a supreme pizza. And, in the best example from the book: Hate decluttering? Hide scratch-off lottery tickets in your piles. You’ll be sorting through them in no time!

This chapter was so compelling for me. This was the chapter where I really saw my own reactions laid out, and found resources that are actually going to work for me and changing how I react to temptations. It’s amazing!

What an awesome recap, Sonnet! I love hearing about how this is changing the way you understand yourself, and helping you to change your actions!

This chapter helped me understand why sometimes I compulsively check Facebook. It used to be email. And then blogs. And then Twitter. "Because we know there's a chance we'll have a new message, or because the very next YouTube video may be the one that makes us laugh, we keep hitting refresh, clicking the next link, and checking our devices compuslively" (p. 114).

My brain's reward system (fueled by dopamine) promises me that if I see one more Like or Comment on the photo I posted on Facebook, I'll feel pleasure. But rarely do those online responses provide me with the amount of pleasure dopamine has promised--and, as Sonnet pointed out, there is a considerable amount of anxiety that comes along with my compulsive clicking! I think that just being aware of that trap--of the lies dopamine tells me--has helped me to be a little less compulsive about "checking my devices"--sometimes. Honestly, I have a ways to go on fighting this battle, but at least now I understand the battle better!

And do you know anyone who plays video games for hours upon hours? If so, you may find this just as eye-opening as I did: "Computer and video game designers intentionally manipulate the reward system to keep players hooked. The promise that the next level or big win could happen at any time is what makes a game compelling. It's also what makes a game hard to quit. One study found that playing a video game led to dopamine increases equivalent to amphetamine use--and it's this dopamine rush that makes both so addictive" (pp. 114-115). Wow!

Clearly Facebook and video games aren't actually the best ways to relax. Chapter Six, which we'll review next week, goes into more detail about what activities really do bring us stress relief, since the prompting of dopamine so often steers us in the wrong direction.

McGonigal makes it clear that dopamine isn't evil, though. When people don't have enough dopamine, "the result isn't so much total contentment as it is apathy" (p. 131). Seeking rewards is a very important part of being a healthy human. But, as Sonnet said, we can use dopamine to work for us.

I was intrigued by what McGonigal calls "the power of an unpredictable reward" (p.123). Some drug and alcohol recovery programs use a "fish bowl" reward system. The fish bowl holds slips of paper, half of which have rewards on them, from $1 to $20, with one $100 prize. The other half are printed with the message, "Keep up the good work." Patients who test negative on their drug tests are allowed to pick from the fish bowl. One study showed that patients who get fish bowl rewards are far more successful in staying off drugs or alcohol than those who don't get a reward. In fact, the fish bowl (which, as you'll recall, only gives monetary rewards half the time) even works better than guaranteed payments for passing drug tests. "Our reward system gets much more excited about a possible big win than a guaranteed smaller reward," McGonigal explains.

So I've put this into practice with my kids. For the last several weeks, we've been using an "unpredictable reward" system. When my kids are extra-helpful, or do a great job cleaning up their rooms, they get to dip their little hands into a canister that has rewards ranging from "One episode of television" to "Special date with Daddy." They love the new reward system and are so motivated to earn the right to choose one! And it's giving me the motivation to spend more time doing special things with them. When one of them gets the "Be Mommy's Assistant Chef" reward, I know I need to take the time to let that child help me in the kitchen.

Next week we'll talk about how GUILT and STRESS make it much more difficult to reach our goals. Get ready to hear scientific reasons to stop beating yourself up when you mess up! See you next week!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

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