Guilty Pleasures: When Unhealthy Behaviors Make You Happy

Guilty PleasuresSelf-determination theory posits three basic human needs that underlie motivation: Autonomy, competence, and relatedness. A colleague of mine who is a clinical psychologist has said for as long as I have known him that the theory is missing a fourth motivating need: Avoiding distress. He may be right.

Let’s explore smoking as a behavior. Why is quitting smoking so hard for people?

There are lots of reasons:

  • Cigarettes are physiologically addicting.
  • People often feel compelled to quit for reasons outside of their control: Other people’s requests, physician admonishments, and the like. We know this type of extrinsic motivation isn’t effective for maintaining new behaviors over time.
  • Smoking is often a social behavior, so quitting means missing out on time with friends.
  • Smokers enjoy tobaccoQuitting tobacco means quitting a pleasure, and that causes distress.

Other unhealthy behaviors also have a pleasure factor. People like the taste of unhealthy foods, the buzz they get from alcohol, and the relaxing sensation of lounging on the couch instead of taking a run. Yet in behavior change interventions, we rarely address the fact that change means forgoing a pleasure.

This creates motivational ambivalence. We may want to move toward a new way of behaving, but we also want to avoid the distress that comes with giving up something we enjoy. The distress is compounded when the unhealthy behavior comes with other benefits: Smoking outside with our friends, sharing nachos and beers in front of the tv, or the pleasure of splitting a bottle of wine on a date.

For many people, becoming healthier may mean giving up something they really love. Helping them through that change means acknowledging the sacrifice, at a minimum. Hopefully we can also find ways to help people replace their beloved bad habit with a satisfying healthy alternative, but that will take time and effort. In the gap time between giving up the old habit and falling in love with a new one, coaches and providers need to understand that the person making the change may be in mourning for a pleasure lost.