Reaping Life’s Rewards- What Do You Award Yourself?

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

For the first time in a long time, the writing bug has caught me in a cocktail bar. Not a bierhaus (though I certainly have my favorites in this town), or just a neighborhood bar (plenty of those too.)

Tonight, as I write this, I am bellied-up to the downtown, underground bar of Pepe le Moko. In my bag is a brand-new horror manga, and I am a fine cocktail down (a “Mexican Firing Squad” for the record) and now nursing a small measure of bourbon.

Because this has been a week, I can afford it every now and then, and I have earned it, damn it.

If you want to build good habits, or just remind yourself that life isn’t necessarily an endless hamster-wheel till you die, rewarding yourself for good work is critical.

Animated GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio toasting a glass of wine as Jay Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby"

“Reward Yourself” is Not Quite “Treat Yourself.”

Let’s bop that one on the head right now.

There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself- if you are intelligent and responsible about it, and recognize that it is not a replacement for actual self-care. Bath bombs and chocolate will not do your laundry, just like cocktails will not make me appointments with the dentist.

While “treat yourself” is a hairs-breadth away from consumerist tripe, rewards actually have psychology and research to back up their values in establishing good habits and encouraging a positive state of mind.

I’m about to get a little technical and “this guy has a Bachelors in Psych”-ish, but the bottom line is this. Rewards tell you something is worth it.

Conditioning– Not Just For Your Hair

Sit down with any psych major (or, in my case, anyone who studied psychology in high school,) mention the words “reward,” “Punishment” or “conditioning”, and get ready for one of two things: 1. An internal debate over whether Watson was a prick for the “Little Albert” experiments, or 2. Pavlov and drooling dogs.

Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments demonstrating classical conditioning are pretty well ground into the public consciousness. I’ll sum it up here:

  1. Ring bell and feed dogs at the same time.
  2. Dogs will salivate, because food.
  3. Continue for stretch of time.
  4. Ring bell, don’t feed dogs.
  5. Dogs drool anyway.
  6. Profit, I guess?
A man looking at a map, confused
Photo by on

This is the basis for classical conditioning- causing a reactive behavior by first associating its cause with another stimulus.

Operant Conditioning is a little more complicated, as it focuses on increasing behaviors via reinforcement or decreasing them through punishment, and both can be applied in a “positive” or “negative” fashion.

An organizational graph of operant conditioning from Wikipedia.
Flowchart from Wikipedia

“Rewarding” yourself is generally positive reinforcement– I worked hard this week, so I get tasty cocktail. I gained something pleasant.

Negative reinforcement is a bit hairier to give yourself, because it involves removing something unpleasant. Since most of us actively try to avoid unpleasant things anyway (and lets be real, the “unpleasant” things in our lives are usually what we have to do,) there really isn’t any way this works on us.

Therefore, if you want to encourage a new habit in yourself, you need to find ways to reward yourself- and not just anything will do.

A Prize Worth Winning

When it comes to picking a rewards, they need to be:

  1. Meaningful. This is pretty obvious- your rewards need to be things that you enjoy or care about. They need to be things that will psych you up enough to see the task done, OR make the doing of them feel “worth it.”
  2. Commensurate. A hard week of work done well deserves a nice night out. Finishing that big project maybe deserves a new video game to enjoy in your down time. Neither merits buying a new car. Make your rewards appropriate for the tasks you performed.
  3. Conducive to the Behavior They Reward. Especially in trying to build new behaviors around wellness- such as eating right or exercising- there is a big temptation to make your rewards “indulgences” in the very habits you are trying to extinguish. It usually looks like this “Hey, I ran three miles today- I’ll get the gigantic hamburger for lunch. I deserve it!” Bad idea- don’t reward good behavior with bad behavior. Instead, find rewards that will make future behavior better or more fun – “You know, I’ve been working out regularly all week, I deserve a new workout shirt!”
Animated GIF of Shia LeBouef screaming "DO IT"

To Sum Up:

Rewards are important. They encourage productivity by giving you a goal (AND encouraging you to make it measurable,) they remind you to celebrate your accomplishments, and generally just make our lives a bit more fun!

In order to work, they need to be meaningful, commensurate, and conductive to your goals- otherwise they won’t motivate, will leave you in a difficult position, or wind up being self-defeating.

So, how are YOU going to reward yourself today? Drop it in the comments!

Stay Classy,

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