“Perseverance separates the winners from the losers, Deon. In both sport and life,” so said my dad in 1988.
I’ve never forgot the pep-talk I had that day. Just before I was about to take part in the 100 metres butterfly. I was attempting to qualifications for South African Nationals.
Are you someone who perseveres despite difficulties and setbacks, or do you tend to throw in the towel and call it quits when faced with a challenge or adversity? What makes some people able to keep pushing and complete a task while others habitually fizzle and don’t follow through?
Dopamine is the fuel that keeps people motivated to persevere and achieve a goal. You have the power to increase your production of dopamine by changing your attitude and behavior. Scientists have identified higher levels of dopamine – also known as the “reward molecule” – as being linked to forming lifelong habits, such as perseverance.
Neuroscientists have known for years that dopamine is linked to positive behavior reinforcement and the ‘ding, ding, ding’ jackpot feeling you get when you accomplish a goal. Recently they have also discovered the specific receptors that link dopamine directly to the formation of good and bad habits.
Why is perseverance so important to success?
In my recent research (I use this term loosely) and wider reading, I have noticed there are certain personality traits that lead to changing behavioral habits.
The Associate Professor of Exercise and Health Sciences at Uni Mass Boston, Jean Wiecha (who is also the Director of the GoKids programme) has conducting community-based research on child health for 20 years. Her work has focused on childhood obesity and environmental and policy influences on nutrition, diet, and physical activity.
Jean Wiecha and her team are taking the emphasis off the talk of “obesity” with children and shifting it to empowering kids to want be healthy because they learn to love the feelings and consequences of being physically active and eating better. The biggest pay-off isn’t simply the shedding of pounds or lowering BMI, it is the broad spectrum of improvements that activity and health brings to their personal and academic lives. Dr. Wiecha and her team are focused on finding ways to help teens and pre-teens improve health, wellness, overall outlook and to stay in school – not just losing weight.
She suggest that the biggest predictor of long-term success is “perseverance”. She says, “anytime you lace up your sneakers and start moving your body and achieve a goal you are reinforcing a mindset of perseverance that bleeds into all aspects of your life.”
I used to hate going to the gym…
A few years ago I would say the gym was boring. Pumping iron is just dull. But a year on, sticking with my exercise regime so that I no-longer view the physical activity as a ‘disagreeable’ experience has brought about a type of ‘conversion experience’.
I have gone from thinking of exercise as something I have to do to something I want to do. I now train 4 or 5 times a week. Dr. Wiecha says, ” once physical activity and being healthy becomes a labor of love – not just a matter of sheer will power or discipline – behavorial changes become lifelong habits.”
So why are some people more inclined to persevere and others to quit?
Neuroscientific research shows that higher levels of dopamine might separate the internal drive some people have to persevere while lower dopamine levels cause others to give up. Obviously, there are a wide range of factors that come into play when someone decides to persevere – but dopamine can be harnessed and used as a prime motivating force to help you keep pushing and achieve your goals.
How does the Dopamine Reward System Work?
Your internal “Reward System” is a collection of brain structures that regulate your behavior by making you feel good when you achieve a goal. Everything necessary for the survival of our species – eating, mating, sleeping and physical perseverance – is rewarded by a flood of neurochemicals that make us feel good.
This is a very generous biological design and at the same time necessary for our survival. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, nature created an internal reward system that reinforced lifestyle habits necessary to survive. Dopamine floods your body and mind with a rush of satisfaction and reward anytime you succeed at achieving something biologically necessary for your survival.
In a modern world we still get the same rush of dopamine when it comes to primal things like dating or salivating over a meal – but it becomes less automatic when trying to achieve goals that are not part of our primal instincts. We have evolved to have hard work, sweat and perseverance trigger the release of dopamine.
Unfortunately, in a modern world these achievements are not viewed biologically as a matter of life or death and do not automatically release dopamine.
Luckily, you can use your large prefrontal cortex and the ‘executive function‘ to trigger the release of dopamine using the seven methods below:
PICTURE YOURSELF AS A HUMAN “LAB RAT” IN A SKINNER BOX
In 1954, researchers James Olds and Peter Milner had found the ‘pleasure center’ of the brain. When the rat achieved a goal they rewarded the rat with a jolt that triggered the release of dopamine. The rats began to associate success at a task with a biological reward of feeling good. You can do this too.
You have the power to tap your own dopamine reserves simply by visualizing yourself as having your finger on a ‘joy-stick’ of pleasure, just like a rat in a skinner box with a lever. Learn to associate perseverance and accomplishing a mission with feeling good. Everytime you complete a task in your daily life visualise that you have just self-administered a hit of ‘feel good’ dopamine and that habit will be reinforced.
THE ‘PLEASURE PRINCIPLE’ TRUMPS ‘WILL-POWER’ EVERY TIME
Perseverance is synonymous with pain and suffering to many people. Because all animals instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain, you have to flip your perspective on perseverance 180-degrees and view struggle and perseverance as a doorway to pleasure. Stop viewing perseverance as drudgery but as an opportunity to neurochemically boost your confidence and make you feel good.
When framed correctly, the process of perseverance becomes a hedonic experience. This is an explanatory style that makes certain people keep pushing and others to quit.
Whenever I meet someone who loves to exercise I ask them how they stay motivated to stick with it and persevere through workouts. The response I get nine-out-of-ten times is: “I exercise regularly because it makes me feel good.” The next time you feel unmotivated to exercise or work harder towards a goal remember the “Pleasure Principle” and the equation that SWEAT = BLISS.
Laziness and lack of follow through is seductive because it’s easy and requires no effort. But, over time the habit of complacency leaves your dopamine depleted and you become dissatisfied and even depressed.
NOT ACHIEVING GOALS DRIES UP YOUR DOPAMINE RESERVES
Low levels of dopamine makes you apathetic. If you do not accomplish something everyday your dopamine reserves will diminish. Humans are designed to work hard and to be rewarded for their efforts biologically.
Being uninspired and lacking self-motivation is a downward spiral that can snowball out of control. It’s so easy to become bitter, cynical and hopeless when your dopamine reserves are low. But you have the power to turn this around by consciously looking at everything you achieve – from flossing your teeth, to taking out the trash – as a way to tap your dopamine reserves.
Look at every thing you do in the day as a chance to create a sense of reward and deliver a rush of dopamine.
EXPECTATION AND BELIEF CAN PRODUCE DOPAMINE
In a recent New Yorker article, Ted Kaptuchuk, who is the director of the “Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter” at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, talks about the medical power of belief. He says that if a patient believes that a placebo drug is the real thing that it can trigger the body to endogenously produce that chemical and the subsequent healing response.
According to Kaptuchuk, neuroimaging has revealed examples of patients with Parkinson’s disease who are given a placebo–but told that that it is a drug that will help their symptoms – can create a spike of their dopamine levels. Findings such as these reconfirm that creating a system of belief and an expectation of efficacy can cause changes in your brain chemistry.
Through conditioning techniques your brain can “learn” to trigger biological changes that reduce pain and suffering. If you believe that persevering to achieve a goal will produce more dopamine, odds are it will.
BE METHODICAL: CREATE SELF-IMPOSED DEADLINES
To produce more dopamine, get in the habit of setting deadlines and completing goals in a timely manner.
Create a daily schedule that includes self-imposed deadlines and stick to it! Use timers, calendars and peer pressure to keep you on track and condition yourself. Partner with a like-minded friend who has similar goals and make a pact that you will hold one another accountable to stay on deadline.
TURN A MOUNTAIN INTO “MOLE-HILLS” OF DOPAMINE RELEASE
The key to overcoming large obstacles or ‘mountains’ is to break them into doable doses and tackle them one ‘mole-hill’ at a time.
An effective way to get the jackpot feeling of dopamine while you are in the process of tackling a major goal is to break the bigger challenge, which is a “Macro-Goal” into very tangible “Micro-Goals”, each of which gives you a small hit of dopamine.
For example: Something as simple as putting fresh linens on your bed can be a dopamine goldmine. Each step in the process: from pulling all four corners of a fitted sheet around the mattress; to putting the pillows back in their cases; to then tucking in the sheets to create “hospital corners” are all chances to give yourself mini-hits of dopamine. When you have the bed completely made you get a big spike of dopamine and a sense of accomplishment. You can break every task you face in daily life into mini-achievements that each release a hit of dopamine.
BE YOUR OWN CHEERING SQUAD: LEARN TO SAY “YES! I DID IT!”
Nobody else really cares if you accomplish 99% of the goals you are striving for in your life. Be your own cheering squad. Don’t base your feelings of self-worth on the praise and kudos of others. Doing this puts the release of dopamine and sense of accomplishment outside of your locus of control. This can leave you feeling dejected.
Run your own race in everything you do. Having the eye of the tiger requires that you decide exactly what you are going for and then GOING FOR IT. Identify a target and hunt it down. Get in the habit of pushing towards a goal to completion.
And when you succeed get in the habit of saying, “Yes! I did it!” silently or under your breath.
Creating a steady flow of dopamine is fundamental to creating a habit of perseverance.
This incredible neurochemical is accessible to everyone. YOU have the power to tap into your internal dopamine reserves on demand.
Learning and conditioning yourself to self-administer this ‘reward molecule’ everyday can turn anyone into a go-getter. With a slight attitude adjustment and shift in perspective everybody has the power to become more perseverant by tapping the universal power of dopamine.
The ability to create a habit of perseverance isn’t something reserved for a few – it is available to you! You CAN keep calm and carry on!