Intrinsic Motivation Can Help You Embrace Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Self-determination theory

Beginning in the early 1970s, Edward Deci at the University of Rochester began developing what later became self-determination theory (SDT). Subsequently with Rochester colleague, Richard Ryan and others, SDT blossomed into a well-researched and validated way to understand and predict why we humans behave the way we do. Deci, Ryan, and colleagues conducted dozens of research projects addressing health-related topics, such as what helps us adopt and maintain healthy behaviors.

Self-determination theory assumes that we humans have three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the degree to which we feel that we make choices of our own volition and are not pressured or coerced into the choices we make. Thus, autonomous people believe that the motivation underlying their daily choices and the regulation of their lives arise largely from within themselves. Competence (also known as self-efficacy) refers to the degree to which we feel we’re able to undertake and accomplish a particular task or achieve a specific goal. Relatedness refers to the degree to which we feel connected to other people in a warm and supportive manner.

Autonomy, competence, and relatedness drive motivation

According to self-determination theory, the degree to which we feel autonomous, competent, and socially connected largely governs our motivation to perform our daily tasks and how we regulate our behavior. Ryan and Deci proposed that we operate along a continuum from non-self-determined to highly self-determined. The way in which our motivation operates also follows this same continuum from extrinsically to intrinsically motivated.

Aim for intrinsic motivation

We’re more likely to embrace and maintain healthy lifestyle choices to the degree that we feel autonomous, competent, and socially connected, all of which promote intrinsic motivation. This type of motivation arises from a feeling that we do something because we enjoy or value it for its own sake. Intrinsic motivation comes from within a person rather than from without. For example, some people (myself included) walk primarily for the simple enjoyment of it and not primarily due to the practical value it provides. Of course, I’m aware that overwhelming evidence shows that walking promotes better health and well-being, but that’s not my main motivation for walking.

Move towards intrinsic motivation

But what if you don’t like walking (or some other healthy lifestyle choice)? It’s possible to change your mind about a particular healthy choice and integrate that healthy choice into your being as part and parcel of who you are as a person. For example, while you might not initially regard walking as enjoyable, over time you might learn the massive benefits of increased physical activity. You might come to believe that those benefits could apply to you. You might see yourself as capable of walking for 22 minutes (or more) after your biggest daily meal. You might decide to incorporate walking into your daily routine because it coincides with your newly developed self-image as a healthy person.

But what if you think that walking is unpleasant and won’t improve your health and well-being? It’s still possible to change your mind and move toward intrinsic motivation. Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Your spouse learns that after-meal walking can reduce her risk of type 2 diabetes, so she starts walking after dinner. She pesters you to join her on the after dinner walks. In the interest of marital harmony, you agree and find that it’s not as bad as you feared. Actually, you find it nice to say hello to the neighbors you meet on your walks. Eventually, you start thinking that walking is something you should do. And to your surprise, you realize that you feel better following you after-dinner walks. At one point, you think that after-meal walking seems to promote your health and well-being. And one fine day, you realize that walking is an important part of who you are as a healthy person. You and your wife look forward to your daily after-meal walks rain or shine.

The adage “start from where you are” applies to embracing and maintaining healthy lifestyle choices. Even if you initially don’t like something that evidence shows is healthy (my favorite example is kale), you might be able to change your mind about it and eventually and willingly incorporate that healthy choice into your daily life.

Autonomy, competence, and relatedness matter

We need to feel that we choose our behaviors rather than having them foisted on us by an external source. Deadlines, imposed goals, surveillance, and evaluations are often extrinsic motivators that can undermine intrinsic motivation. To be intrinsically motivated, we need to perceive ourselves as competent and autonomous. We need to feel that we are effective and self-determining.

For an outcome of a healthy behavior (for example, avoiding diabetes by eating less sugar) to serve as a useful motivator, we must first 1) understand the healthy behavior, 2) see the behavior as relevant to our life, and 3) believe that we have the capability to implement the behavior successfully. Thus, we need knowledge, capabilities and strategies to achieve desired outcomes. My recent book, Choose Better, Live Better – Nine Healthy Choices that Nurture Body, Mind, and Spirit, makes the case that lifestyle choices can rejuvenate your life.

Adopt healthy behaviors

What conditions motivate us to adopt healthy behaviors? Research by Deci, Ryan and others shows that autonomy, competence, and warm relationships with others support intrinsic motivation and promote healthy behaviors, especially over the long term. Thus, if we can increase our autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others, we would be more motivated to adopt healthy behaviors and, thereby, enjoy substantial health benefits. The cost of medical care would likely diminish, too.

Take action

I suggest that you identify one healthy lifestyle choice to embrace in your life. It doesn’t matter what it is. What does matter is your belief that the choice will improve your health and well-being, that you can implement the choice successfully, and that you’re willing to take appropriate action. You’ll probably make faster progress and more lasting results if you find a partner (my wife is my main partner) in your journey.

Here’s an example from my life. I used to eat a large bowl of vanilla ice cream covered with chocolate sauce and peanuts pretty much every night. At one point, I realized that my expanding waist line likely came from those hefty, daily desserts. I didn’t want to gain more fat around my middle. I chose to not eat my huge desserts any more except on special occasions, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or my birthday. My new behavior: Don’t walk down the ice cream aisle at the grocery store. Out of sight, out of mind. I also asked my wife not to buy ice cream, except perhaps small packages when we have guests for dinner. If I found ice cream in the freezer, I decided to eat just one bite then put the ice cream back in the freezer. I savored the flavor of the ice cream. To this day, I don’t walk down the ice cream aisle at the grocery store, and I don’t eat desserts except on special occasions.

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