Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Reward yourself and enhance your perseverance

In our post on the character strength grit, we learned that perseverance is extremely important for achievement. Those who outperform others are often not the most talented ones, but the ones with the most grit. And there is no domain of expertise where world class performers have put in fewer than ten years of consistent deliberate practice. What can we do in order to enhance this seemingly very important character strength?

In an article on PsychologyToday, Christopher Bergland describes some approaches to enhance one’s perseverance. One way seems to be physical activity. Observing an exercise regimen for some time is perceived as a duty first and requires self-discipline. Eventually, when one feels better due to the regular exercise, it will into something that is fun and self-rewarding. But how can we get there?

The basis for learning a new habit such as exercising regularly is our internal reward system, which is largely based on dopaminergic neurons. Dopamine makes us feel good when we have achieved a goal. Thus, dopamine is important for habit learning. During the learning process, dopaminergic neurons fire more and more in response to a cue that is followed by a reward. In a study published in the journal Neuron, Lei Phillip Wang from Georgia Health Sciences University and his colleagues found that mice with impaired dopaminergic neurons are not as good with respect to habit learning as “normal” mice. In a video, the researchers explain their study.

video


Thus, making our reward system and thus the release of dopamine work seems to be crucial for learning new habits and thus for improving our perseverance. Christopher Bergland gives some advice on how we can achieve this. He suggests visualising your feelings after accomplishing your goal. For example, if you are having trouble motivating yourself for exercise, imagine the feeling you usually have after your exercise. Even believing that you can achieve your goal is likely to produce dopamine. And again, breaking down one big goal into smaller ones is important because it gives you the opportunity to achieve many goals and be rewarded by dopamine release several times instead of just once. It also seems to be important to trigger the release of dopamine at regular intervals because otherwise the level drops and makes you apathetic. Therefore, create a feeling of reward for all the small things you achieve during the day (tidying up your desk, taking out the trash, and so on). Puzzles and brain teasers also seem to help, with the nice side effect that they train your brain fitness.

Thus, training our own internal reward system seems to help build up new habits and thus can enhance our perseverance. Hopefully this will help you achieve your New Year’s resolutions!

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