54. The Problem with Rewards
Welcome to episode 54 of the Mindful Weight Loss Podcast. I am your host and your coach, Emily Erekuff and today I am talking about rewards and why it's imperative to stop thinking of food as a reward, and why the entire concept of rewarding ourselves for certain behaviors is problematic.
And why I'm inspired to talk about this now is in part because I've just started reading a great book called Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn. And, it's not a new book. It was published back in 1993. And just like the title indicates, it argues that offering rewards to create specific actions or behaviors really does more harm than good. The book description says, "Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades or other incentives. The more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we're bribing them to do." And it goes on to say, "Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin - and the coin doesn't buy much."
And yet, particularly in America, we are such a carrot and stick culture - and so much so that we internalize the idea that rewards and punishments are the way to get ourselves to do something. It's interesting, because what I've read so far is really indicative of how we use rewards and punishments as a means of controlling others, but not so much about how we use these very things against ourselves, which is what we tend to do when food and weight loss enter the picture.
The other reason I wanted to talk about this topic this week is because it's a natural follow up to the last few episodes. In episode 52 I spoke about learning to sit with what is and that is in contrast to seeking out a false reward or heightened state. And in episode 53 I spoke about enjoying food purely for it's taste, but not in response to that urge we feel to distract ourselves or seek pleasure.
Ultimately when we overeat or binge, what it boils down to, is that we are using food to attempt to change our state. We are uncomfortable and are looking to change that, or we are comfortable, but we're looking to increase that comfort or add more pleasure to the equation. And on the face of it this might not look like reward-seeking behavior - like what are you rewarding yourself for exactly? - but when you step back and look at it, it really is.
It's almost as if we are so conditioned to seek rewards that we don't know how to stop. We get home at the end of the day and it's not enough to be done with work and to be home and be able to relax and watch your favorite TV show or read a good book. We're so consumed with productivity and doing and getting rewarded for it that we're always looking for the next thing to do and the next reward that comes with it. And when there's nothing left, we turn to food.
And then we plan our next diet or weight loss attempt and we swing back and forth and it's this perfect cycle that keeps us forever doing and forever seeking a reward that we never really get.
And here's what I want you to walk away with from today's episode: I want you to realize and understand that ultimately none of the things we're trying to reward ourselves with are actually rewarding.
And it's funny because even the definitions of reward and rewarding are kind of at odds with each other. A reward is defined as "a thing given in recognition of one's service, effort, or achievement" but rewarding is defined as "providing satisfaction or gratifying."
We tend to use the word rewarding when we speak about behaviors that have an intrinsic value. A doctor who loves to practice medicine has found a rewarding career. Someone who enjoys skiing has found a rewarding hobby. And yet when we reward someone or ourselves, it's as though we're attempting to make up for something that we believe is not rewarding in and of itself.
Going on a diet is a great example. You're making a sacrifice, you're requiring a lot of effort. The diet itself is anything but rewarding, and so to restore the balance you need to reward yourself. And it's interesting because the reason you go on a diet in the first place is because you think the ultimate reward, the weight loss, will be rewarding. You think losing weight will be satisfying and gratifying. But if that were the case, why aren't those two pounds down on the scale enough? If the sum is the whole of its parts, why aren't we just as happy losing weight along the way as we think we'll be once we've reached our goal weight?
And I'll tell you right now, it's because we don't think losing weight in and of itself is actually rewarding. What we think is rewarding are all the things that we associate with weight loss - that we'll be or feel more attractive or confident or accomplished. But losing weight doesn't actually do that for you, which is why you feel the need to reward your weight loss efforts with something like a new pair of shoes or maybe worse with food.
So many of us think that we sabotage ourselves meaning that we deliberately stop ourselves from losing weight. We think we have some unknown block against it or that we can't let ourselves be happy, and that's why after we lose a few pounds, we overindulge and go back to square one. But really, that's just our reward-seeking behavior run amok. Even if you lose weight in a positive way that ideally is rewarding in and of itself, we are still so programmed to look for that carrot, that we often don't realize that's what we're doing.
And though food can be enjoyable and satisfying, notice that when we overeat or binge, we're experiencing the same kind of fantasy that we have with our goal weight. We think once we eat x, y or z or finally get enough that we'll be satisfied and that we can finally relax or that we'll finally feel better, but we never actually get there.
And the key to notice about this reward-seeking behavior is that it presumes that the present state of things isn't rewarding or isn't rewarding enough. Remember a reward is "a thing given in recognition of one's service, effort, or achievement." You served and sacrificed and now it's time to restore the balance. You need something in exchange for that effort. You had a long, hard day at work and you need something in exchange for that. You don't see that as a rewarding experience. You feel depleted and you are looking for a reward to fill yourself back up. Or, perhaps you do see that as a rewarding experience, but you are still looking for that something extra.
And yet, the minute you look for the extra, you are telling yourself that what you have isn't enough. The minute you go looking for more, you feel like what you have is less. The more you look for some kind of external reward, the more you are indicating that what is happening right now isn't rewarding.
And it's not that it actually isn't rewarding, it merely that you think it isn't. This goes all the way back to my very first episode when I talked about realizing that I could decide what enough means. This is the flip side of that. When you are always seeking more, the implication is that what you have isn't enough; it isn't rewarding; it isn't satisfying or gratifying. If you need a reward to get through through the day, well then your day isn't rewarding. That's the message that we are given and that we are constantly giving ourselves.
And so we eat too much, drink too much, and buy things that we don't need. You buy a sweater online and just like losing weight, you think it will change your life. And you get really excited when you track your package and see that it's a little bit closer, that you've just got three days left to wait. And when it finally gets there you try it on and it fits perfectly and you're thrilled. But ten minutes later you feel a little bit empty because nothing has really changed. You now have the sweater, but everything else is exactly the same. And so you look for the next reward; the next thing that promises satisfaction.
And this is how we are punished by rewards. The need for a reward demeans everything we have and have done. It demeans the very life we have. Life isn't rewarding enough. Life isn't enough. This moment that you get to spend living and breathing isn't satisfying enough.
And yet nothing could be further from the truth. When you turn off this reward-seeking behavior and tap into your senses and just observe and appreciate the present moment, you realize that you don't need a thing. Life is rewarding. Life is satisfying. And that's the very thing we miss when we're always looking for more.
And so the solution to this isn't to deny yourself the things you want. The solution isn't more sacrifice that you're going to have to make up for with more rewards. The solution is simply to notice when you are seeking; when you are looking for something to make this moment better and ultimately to realize that the attempt is futile. There is nothing better than right now. There's no way to improve upon this incredible moment that you've been given.
And that doesn't mean you don't buy the sweater online or that you don't enjoy the chocolate cake, rather, you notice when you're using those things as rewards. Because when you do that, you're not just cheapening the present moment, you're also cheapening these things. Buying the sweater, wearing the sweater, eating a piece of chocolate cake - those things can be incredibly rewarding experiences. But when we look for those things to be more than they are, when we look for the sweater or chocolate cake to make up for some deeper lack that we feel, we're setting ourselves up for dissatisfaction and disappointment. We're not just letting the cake taste good, we're trying to use it to improve this moment and when we do that the cake tasting good suddenly isn't enough. We need better or more ...
In the song King Without a Crown, Matisyahu says, "If you're already there then there's nowhere to go, If you're cup's already full then its bound to overflow." And there's a beautiful quote from Mother Theresa in which she says, "We must free ourselves to be filled with God. Even God cannot fill what is full."
Even God cannot fill what is already full. We must stop trying to fill ourselves and allow ourselves to be filled. That's what we truly long for and food and material possessions are lousy replacements for it. At the end of the day no reward is enough because life is already rewarding beyond anything we could ever imagine.
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I will see you next week.