Reinforcement: How to Make Your Habits Stick

Whenever you’ve completed a good habit, it’s vital that you allow yourself to feel good about it. The reward at the end of the behavior is what will make you want to do it again in the future.

To understand why that is, we need to take a look inside the brain. Every behavior involves multiple brain regions and neurochemicals, but the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an especially important part.

Many people think dopamine is released when the brain gets a reward, but that’s actually not quite accurate. Dopamine is not released during a reward, but in anticipation of a reward 1.

If you, for example, bite into your favorite piece of chocolate, you won’t have a spike in dopamine. In fact, you’ll have very little of it. The dopamine is released long before that — when you spot the chocolate in the store:

reinforcement

In the words of neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky: “Dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”

Dopamine Drives Behavior

The vital importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner published a seminal paper uncovering the reward system of the brain2.

In one of their experiments, they implanted electrodes in the brains of rats and blocked the release of dopamine. Soon, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. They wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t want to do anything. And within a few days, they died from thirst.

When other researchers have reversed this process and flooded brains with dopamine, animals have executed behaviors at incredible speed. In one study, researchers gave mice a hit of dopamine every time they poked their nose in a box. Within minutes, the mice were poking their nose into the box eight hundred times per hour3.

The takeaway? Dopamine is vital for eliciting goal-directed behavior. Low levels of dopamine will lead to weak habits, and high levels of dopamine will lead to strong habits.

Deliberate Reinforcement

In a perfect world, the reward for a good habit would be the habit itself. But, as you’ve probably noticed, that’s not how it works. In the beginning, there’s usually nothing inherently rewarding about it.

The first couple of times you go to the gym, there won’t be any noticeable difference in your physique. It will probably take months before you start getting fitter. And it’s usually not until then that it gets easier to exercise for its own sake.

So, in the beginning, you need to engineer your own dopamine spikes while the long-term rewards accumulate in the background. And the best way to do that is to use what psychologists call reinforcement; using immediate rewards to strengthen behaviors.

Reinforcement can take many forms, but the simplest and most effective I’ve found is behavior expert BJ Fogg’s “celebration” technique4. As the name suggests, all you have to do is celebrate each time you’ve completed your habit. For example:

  • Do a fist pump
  • Tell yourself, “That’s like me!”
  • Put on a big smile

It might sound silly, but it works remarkably well. By deliberately self-generating positive emotions, your brain will pay attention. It will come to associate your routine with feeling good. And soon, it will start releasing dopamine each time it anticipates your habit.

So, find a way to celebrate that makes you feel successful, empowered, and happy. Then use it every time you’ve completed your habit. The stronger the emotion you generate, the faster your habit will form.

Footnotes

  1. Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure
  2. Positive Reinforcement Produced by Electrical Stimulation of Septal Area and Other Regions of Rat Brain
  3. Serotonergic Versus Nonserotonergic Dorsal Raphe Projection Neurons: Differential Participation in Reward Circuitry
  4. Rewire Your Brain