Our culture teaches that if you work hard enough at anything, you’ll be successful. Recent studies, however, suggest that hard work may not be enough when it comes to weight loss.
At a time when obesity is a national — and increasingly an international — epidemic, scientists are weighing in on the billion-dollar weight-loss industry to try and figure out what it takes to make the scale budge.
Turns out that when it comes to weight loss, attitude is just as important as hard work. Happiness really comes when we strive toward our potential and think about what we do like about ourselves, suggests Harvard lecturer Shawn Achor in his book, “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” Several studies Achor examine in his book indicate a definitive causal relationship between happiness and success: in each study, happiness precedes and causes eventual success. It seems that being motivated by negativity (e.g., Look how huge my thighs are!) precludes our success more than anything else.
Achor writes that by increasing optimism, gratitude, or social support first, “our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, resilient, and productive at work.” Similarly to the way our brains respond to positivity in a work environment, increasing our positivity first can also help turn dieting and exercising into a more pleasant experience. Achor suggests that maybe the way to succeed is to be happy first, rather than trying to succeed in order to be happy.
When we are happy, the brain’s reward pathway becomes activated through the release of serotonin and dopamine, and we become more motivated to get moving and to accomplish our goals. Serotonin is intimately involved in motivated behavior. It is released by the raphe nucleus, at the base of the brain, and reaches the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in the control of motivation. Our brains release serotonin when we are happy. When we are unhappy or depressed (e.g., from thinking about how fat we feel), serotonin is low, and we avoid anxiety-producing situations. We lose our drive to take on challenges, feel resentful and overwhelmed, become more impulsive and compulsive, experience shortened attention spans and crave comfort foods. In short, we are less likely to take on a hefty challenge like losing weight. But when we start out happy, our brains release more serotonin pre-workout, and the serotonin floods the nucleus accumbens. When the nucleus accumbens is nourished, all of the above symptoms reverse, and we are more likely to challenge ourselves at the gym.
Dopamine is an important player in our brain’s reward system and in goal-directed behavior.
It is released when we expect a reward and inhibited when the reward is withdrawn. When a reward is available (e.g., losing weight, getting in better shape, etc.), more dopamine is released, and so individuals become more motivated to accomplish their goals. Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, says dopamine promotes “motivated performance,” or the success of what we want. While deficient dopamine leads to apathy, heightened levels lead to more intense awareness and alertness, so we can stay on task longer.
So in order to be motivated to go the gym after a long day at work, we first need to feel good about ourselves; we can’t wait to feel good about ourselves until after we finish our
workout. Next time you come home from a long day and are ready to collapse, tell yourself you did a great job today; tell yourself you love the way your calves look in those high heels, or that your new jacket is very becoming on you. And then go hit the gym.