IS OUR MOTIVATION MAKING US FAT AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

22 March 2021

Is Our Motivation Making Us Fat & What Can We Do About It?

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In theory, losing weight is simply a matter of consuming less calories than we expend. In practical terms, this is most easily achieved by creating a modest reduction in the food that we eat combined with a modest increase in energy expenditure through increased physical activity. As simple as this sounds, the spiralling obesity levels clearly show that for many people the theory is much easier than the practice. This is because losing weight typically requires a change in behaviour, which, for many, is a daunting and difficult task. Perhaps you have tried to lose weight, or make some other behaviour change, in the past and have found it difficult to sustain and ultimately relapsed.

While human behaviour is a complex phenomenon and often the product of an array of social, psychological, emotional and environmental factors, making it difficult to understand and a considerable challenge to change, the reasons perhaps most commonly cited for struggling to change behaviour and lose weight are a lack of motivation and willpower. But is this true or could our motivation actually be causing us to become fat? As strange as this may sound, there is good evidence to suggest that this is in fact the case. In his latest book, Motivation and the Solution Focused Mindset: Why telling people what to do doesn’t work and what you should do instead, Dr Patrick Partington explains how we struggle with motivation; why willpower alone will not help us to change behaviour; and how we can adopt a more effective approach.

Ancient Motivation In A Modern World

So, how can our motivation be causing us to get fat and sabotage our attempts to change behaviour?

In short, we have ancient motivation in a modern world.

To understand this, we need to understand how our brains work and why they can appear to work against our best interests. Basically, our brains don’t want us to change; they are hardwired for survival and want us to stay just the way we are. However, this becomes a problem when it becomes potentially damaging to our health and well-being.

The brain is primarily concerned with threat and reward. Thousands of years ago physical activity was rewarded with food, which we had to hunt for and gather. When we were threatened, we ran away or we fought, and safety was our reward.  For thousands of years our survival depended on this approach. We needed to conserve energy, as we never knew when we’d get our next meal and we would eat freely when we had access to food for the same reason. Consequently, burning calories needlessly and restricting our intake goes against our instinctive drive for survival, so we have no natural motivation toward exercise and diet.

The problem is that although food is generally more plentiful now and the threats to our exitance are rarely physical, we still have those physiological reward mechanisms. We were once motivated to move and then conserve energy for the next episode of life. Now food is abundant we sit around conserving energy for something that’s never going to happen, but our motivation remains the same.

Rather than considering this to be a negative thing, we should be very grateful for this powerful motivational drive because it has enabled our species to survive and prosper for so long. Once we understand this, it seems unrealistic to assume that we should now be able to simply switch it off to combat the lifestyles diseases of 21st century environment, where we have easy access to high calorie foods and our lifestyles are increasingly sedentary.

So, it is wrong to say that a person lacks motivation because they actually have an abundance of motivation, it’s just that it is ‘designed’ for a time when our environment and lifestyle were very different.

The Well Of Willpower Runs Dry Quickly

In our effort to overcome our survival-biased motivation to eat and be sedentary, we tend to rely on this magical thing called willpower.  This is typically defined as something like the ability to exert control and restrain impulses.

Unfortunately, you may have experienced that willpower is hard to maintain. Having to constantly remind ourselves that we need to get and out exercise when we want to lay on the sofa and watch TV or resisting the urge to consume ‘bad’ foods eventually becomes very difficult.  We may be able to sustain it for a while, perhaps days, weeks or even months, but then at some point, it’s as if we run out of steam. In fact, we run out of psychological energy, and that’s when things start to go wrong. Psychologists now recognise that consistent efforts at willpower lead to a kind of psychological tiredness called ego depletion. When this happens, we tend to return to our default-setting lifestyle that felt so comfortable before. This is of little surprise when we consider that we are, in effect, using willpower to fight an evolutionary instinct that motivates us toward survival. When what we should be doing is using it to support motivation, not fight it.

Hot And Cold Thinking

In order to combat this deeply ingrained resistance to change we need manipulate the way in which way our brains work.

We have two systems for thinking: one is hot, emotional and fast while the other is cool, logical and slow. When we feel motivated to do something it’s our emotional brain that gives us that ‘feeling’ and it’s our logical brain that gives us the reasons that we are motivated. It explains to us why we should change and does all the planning so it can happen. When we come across a hot-trigger, maybe a lie-in or a cake, it’s our logical brain that has to remind us of why we are motivated to change. However, at this moment the motivation has changed from long term to short term pleasure and it’s our cool thinking willpower that has to override this immediate urge, which is when we are likely to relapse.

Leading a healthy lifestyle is largely dependent upon the two personal characteristics of willpower and motivation and we generally assume that they work together, hand in hand in helping us adopt the health behaviours of our choice.

Willpower is the domain of our logical brain, while motivation is the province of our emotional brain. As we have already seen, willpower is a limited resource and the more we use it the weaker it becomes. This is especially problematic when we are under stress, which is when the emotional brain is emphasised and the logical brain is partially shut down, so we make poor decisions. Perhaps you recall and incident when you were upset and you abandoned your diet for the short-term pleasure of an otherwise forbidden treat.

Emotion Drives Behaviour

Emotions have a profound effect on our behaviour and we have to get them to work for us rather than against us when attempting to change. This is because their evolutionary purpose is to drive behaviour. Love, hate, anger and fear all have behavioural outcomes, as they drive us to do something. It is important to note that all negative emotions activate avoidance behaviour; that is, avoidance to change, so rather than risk doing things differently we stick to the old routine. Even though a part of us knows that it’s the wrong thing to do.

For example, people often abandon their well-planned diet and turn to comfort eating when they are upset or angry. Perhaps someone has criticised them about their weight which upsets and depresses them. Rather than motivating the person to address their weight problem, their negative emotions cause them to revert to their old behaviour and overeat to make themselves feel better.

Motivated Away From The Problem Or Toward The Solution?

The traditional approach to behaviour change is to try to get people to move away from the problem behaviour, such as to lose weight or to stop smoking. However, a more recent and effective approach is to move towards a solution. A solution, by definition, is more positive than a problem, and we want to be as positive as we can.

We can see that both willpower and motivation are important for successful behaviour change but it’s how we use motivation and where in the brain it comes from that determines the likelihood of successful change.

Motivation can be oriented in one of two ways: ‘away-from’ and ‘toward’, i.e., away from the problem or towards the solution. Both have their benefits but, on the whole, ‘toward’ motivations are much more solution-focused than ‘away-from’ motivations. Imagine you have a presentation to give, you could be motivated away-from the embarrassment of doing a bad job, or you could be motivated toward doing a good job, and all of the positive feelings associated with it. Focusing on not doing a bad job ensures you remain anxious and think things like: “I hope I don’t mess up and embarrass myself”. Focusing ‘toward’ doing a good job ensures you remain optimistic and think things like: “I’m sure everything will go well for me and everyone will enjoy my talk”. Remember, negative language activates powerful chemical reactions in our brains that strongly influence our emotion, our motivation and behaviour. In this example, away-from motivation is focused on the problem, the bad job, whereas toward motivation is focused on doing a good job.

Understanding A Solution-State

A true solution-state is unique and meaningful to us as individuals. It’s not just the absence of illness or not being inactive nor having a poor diet. It’s about the presence of the things that we value and that have meaning to us. So, it isn’t just about the fact that we are now slim; it’s about what this means to us. If you are trying to change behaviour at the moment, think what the product of the change really means to you. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, what would being slim really mean to you?

While problem-focused talking, thinking and imagery evoke the brain chemistry of anxiety, the positive emotion that comes from talking about pleasant events strongly activates the brain’s reward pathways. In other words, the motivational centres of the brain are activated, and the stronger the positive emotion the stronger the activation. What’s more, when these pleasant events are made personally relevant by way of a well-formed solution-state, the activation is stronger still and motivation even greater. The fact is that emotion drives behaviour, good or bad, and if we are to be motivated towards permanent change, we need to bypass the cool-thinking logical brain and communicate with the reward centre of the emotional brain to create some motivation.

Starting The Change Process

Solution-focused approaches begin by developing the meaning of ‘better’ in terms of a person’s unique values, ambitions and aspirations. If you ask someone how they would feel if they lose weight they often say “better”. But what is “better”? What does “better” feel like to them personally? Being better is a taken for granted concept because it hasn’t been developed and defined; it hasn’t been connected to things of value in an individual’s life. Most importantly, there’s no emotional attachment to the concept of “being better” – remember, emotions drive behaviour. Think of it like this: a goal with no emotional value is like a day without sunshine: emotions illuminate values and aspirations, bring meaning to ambition and activate the reward system of the brain.

We want to use positive statements when trying to define ‘better’.  For example, happy, enthusiastic, proud, confident, excited, looking-forward. Positive words and thoughts such as these activate our emotional brains. Visualisation can also help to create a positive emotional link to our behaviour. This because while words tend to communicate more with our ‘cool’ thinking brain, images have a stronger attachment to our emotions.  Try to visualise how you would feel and look if you lose weight. Perhaps a weight issue has prevented you from doing something you really enjoy. How would it feel to be able to do that thing again? Or perhaps there is a particular item of clothing you’d like to fit into again? Visualise yourself wearing it and how that would make you feel.

Once we have an emotional link to the target behaviour, we are more able to successfully change it and maintain the new behaviour. Remember, it’s about you finding your solution-state, which is positive and unique and meaningful to you, and then moving towards it.

Summary

As we have seen in this article, it is incorrect to say that people lack motivation. Rather, we have plenty of motivation, but it’s directed towards survival, and burning calories needlessly and restricting our intake goes against our instinctive drive for survival.  We try to use willpower to combat this instinctive drive but this a finite resource that is quickly depleted when relied upon too often.

When we feel motivated to do something it’s our emotional brain that gives us that ‘feeling’ and it’s our logical brain that gives us the reasons that we are motivated. Emotion drives behaviour and negative emotion has tendency to drive avoidance behaviour. Therefore, for successful long-term behaviour change we have to employ the emotional brain to provide us with the ‘right’ type of motivation by adopting a positive solution-based focus, which takes us towards our solution-state rather than away from the problem.

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