Everyday Behaviorism: Rewards

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Everyday Behaviorism: Rewards

One of the challenges with adulting is the fact that we have a little too much freedom at times. Any boundaries are up to me. It is pretty nice to be able to choose one’s bedtime and what is for dinner and what kind of car to buy….you get the idea, but you also miss out on the rewards associated with doing a “good job.”

I like my workout group because they high-five me and cheer me on with workouts, but that is pretty much one of the only places where I get high-fived. Sure, one could argue that a paycheck is a sign of a job well done (or done at least), but those lose their excitement over time as well. We sometimes have to come up with our own ways to celebrate accomplishments.

Rewards and Motivation

Almost everyone starts off their life with reward motivation. When babies are struggling to take a bottle in the infant nursery, the nurses will put a little bit of sugar water on the tip of the nipple- sweet taste encourages baby to take the bottle. From the womb, sweet taste is a reward, although we can add salty and fatty to the taste rewards profile over time.

For many people, ice cream or a salted caramel brownie feels like a celebration. If you drink alcohol, chances are you encounter alcoholic drinks as a type of reward or soothing- a glass of wine at the end of a long day or the bottle of wine to celebrate the sale of the house.

Soothing and rewarding can be spread across all five of our senses: burning a candle, snuggling under a soft blanket, looking at great art, listening to your favorite band all can be great ways to celebrate or comfort, depending on your mood state.

“The rewards allow us to create openness to even feared experiences, which translates to an increase in our ability to be present in our lives.”

It is best to have a repertoire of the ways that you “treat” yourself, because reliance on only one approach for soothing can be ineffective at best, or addiction at worst.

How Rewards Helped Me Quit Smoking

I have had the special pleasure of quitting smoking on two different points in my life.

The first time that I quit, I was not quite 25, but knew that I did not want to have such a nasty habit any longer. I also decided that the best way to remind myself that it was important to quit smoking would be by going for a run every time I wanted a cigarette. At that point in time, any length of running would result in me sputtering and coughing, so it was a nice reminder of how unhealthy it was to smoke.

There were some days when I would get home from a run, look around my apartment, desperately want a cigarette, and head right back out for a run. The runs started off as being punishing, but they evolved into something in which I could also feel accomplished.

I can still remember my first 5k race which I intended to run with one of my best friends who was still a smoker. She needed so many breaks, and even had to sit down at one part, for a 5k!! We have definitely grown from there- she completed a half marathon a couple of minutes ahead of me a couple of days ago.

For my reward, I decided that buying myself perfume with the money saved from cigarettes would be the best possible treatment. Up until then, perfume was meant to try to cover smoke, so it was a whole different world when I could wear it just to smell good. I was in better shape than I had been in since high school and even smelled pretty great.

Almost everyone starts off their life with reward motivation. When making a movement towards a particular goal, rewards are a great way to stay motivated.

Fast forward a year or so, and I went through a stressful bump and found myself returning to my old pal, smoking. My friends had all kept smoking, as did my fiancé, so it was a little too easy to fall back to my bad habit.

After a couple of years, I decided that it was time to leave it for good.

I wish I had engaged my original strategy, but I was in grad school and felt that I didn’t have time to run. My new strategy was that I could put anything in my mouth as long as it wasn’t a cigarette.

I quit on November 1st, which meant we had a lot of Halloween candy lying around. Needless to say, my strategy worked in getting me to quit, but didn’t quite get my body into a healthy place! We didn’t really have extra money at the time, either, so there was no fabulous “treat” for the money saved from smoking, but I actually was quitting so that I could get pregnant. I guess we could say that getting to have a baby was a pretty great reward.

In order to get through labor and delivery, I engaged in another reward schedule- I had some fresh new pajamas and toiletries to make me feel good when everything was through!

Move Towards Your Goals with Reward Strategies

When I work with clients, I like to encourage them to come up with reward strategies for tolerating distress or making a movement toward a goal.

You see, a lot of challenges in life can be related to the avoidance of negative feelings/sensations, and we gain more choice in our behaviors and moods when we can develop the ability to be open to things that are hard to accept. In session, we brainstorm about rewards or soothing across the five senses, and try to identify a couple in each category.

“Almost everyone starts off their life with reward motivation.”

For some people, the challenge can be that they have the freedom to give themselves what they want when they want it, so it is hard to imagine “treating” oneself, particularly for surviving an awful experience. In such cases, we may need to employ delay of gratification to create a proper reward.

For instance, I had a client who regularly bought herself new purses, but decided that she could only buy herself new purses when they had been earned by completing a goal. For another client, we decided that he would get a set amount of money to spend on himself every time he completed an exposure to his phobia.

One of my clients decided that she would treat herself with massage when the goal was accomplished but determined that it would be difficult to afford them too frequently so we developed a punch card- she got the massage when it was filled. The rewards allow us to create openness to even feared experiences, which translates to an increase in our ability to be present in our lives.

How Do You Reward Yourself?

I love hearing stories of how people reward themselves (especially love to collect non-food reward strategies), so if you got one, please share! If you need some more ideas, here is a good list from Elephant Journal.

For a simple and effective behavior change strategy, check out this article by Dr. Young.

Check out more articles written by Dr. Kristin Daley!



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Dr. Kristin Daley
Dr. Kristin Daley received her doctorate in clinical health psychology from UNCC. In addition to her doctoral training, she is one of approximately 200 psychologists who completed their certification in behavioral sleep medicine. She is passionate about assisting people in moving into healthy places in life, and spends her free time with her husband and three children.

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