As a culture, we are obsessed with pursuing the perfect body, and the media tell us that once we drop the weight, get the six-pack and fit into our size 2 jeans, then we will be happy.
But what if we have it all wrong? What if the opposite is true? What if being happy brings us body satisfaction?
Here’s the Skinny
The reality is that if our clients do hit their target weight or fit back into their “skinny jeans,” they will feel a spike in their happiness. But it will be fleeting. Humans are excellent at adapting, and in keeping with a tendency known as the hedonic effect (or hedonic treadmill), clients will drop back to their baseline level of happiness even after a major positive event in their lives, such as “getting thin” (Brickman & Campbell 1971).
According to several studies—including continuing longitudinal research
referred to as the Nun Study, which began in 1986 (Snowdon 1997)—we now know that happiness adds years to our life and, in turn, life to our years. But we look for happiness in the wrong places. Most people are convinced that money, looks, status and the like will make them happy, and yet such things contribute to only 10% of overall well-being (Lyubomirsky 2007). And even though science demonstrates that our happiness level is influenced by how we feel about our body, rather than our actual shape, we still tend to behave as though it were the other way around.
Happiness means different things to different people. Martin Seligman, the leading researcher on positive psychology and author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (Free Press 2011), has determined that people are happy when they flourish in the following five areas, which he refers to as PERMA:
- Positive emotions
In the fitness and wellness industry, we have the opportunity to contribute to clients’ happiness by creating positive, functional exercise experiences that combine all the elements of PERMA. One byproduct of this approach may quite possibly be weight loss, but if that happens, it will be because body and brain are adapting to the positive environment and are no longer enslaved to the scale.
Exercising for Greater Well-Being
Exercise is one of the most effective tools we can use to elevate our level of happiness. But when we focus on losing weight or moving because we think we have to, we can turn one of nature’s best medicines into a bad-tasting pill.
More and more research is proving the mental health benefits of exercise. One of the best known studies—the SMILE Study (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-Term Exercise), conducted at Duke University (Blumenthal et al. 2007)—showed that exercising three times a week for 30 minutes each time was as helpful as taking an antidepressant for patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder. What’s more, those on the drug were four times more likely to relapse into depression once the intervention ended compared with those who exercised.
Exercising, however, is not like taking an antidepressant. In fact, according to Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, author of several books on happiness, including Even Happier: A Gratitude Journal for Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (McGraw-Hill 2009), it’s the other way around: “In essence, not exercising is like taking a depressant. We have the need for exercise, and when this need is not fulfilled, we pay a price. We were not made to be inactive, sitting in front of a computer screen all day, or spending our days in meetings. We were made to run after an antelope for lunch, or run away from a lion so that we don’t become lunch. We frustrate a physical need when we don’t exercise, and when we frustrate a need—whether of vitamins, proteins, or exercise—we pay a price.”
For our clients and students to reap the emotional benefits of exercise, the motivation behind the movement needs to be positive. Only then can sustainable change happen. When clients focus on a reward that enhances their quality of life and develop abilities they feel successful at, instead of being motivated by areas of weakness or experiencing exercise as a punishment, they increase their chances of reaching their goals—and are more likely to enjoy the process along the way.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Avery 2012), calls it “wantpower”—meaning an inspiring motivation that doesn’t stem from a negative self-image or the desire to escape a number on the scale. “By focusing on weight loss, exercise gets paired with feelings of self-doubt, self-criticism, body hate or judgment. People often mistake feeling bad with the kind of positive motivation that fuels action,” says McGonigal.
When was the last time you heard a client say the reason he or she was exercising was “to be more creative,” “to be more likeable,” “to reduce my depression,” “to alleviate my anxiety,” “to fire up my brain,” “to be happier” or even “to be more successful”? All of these benefits come with exercise, when fueled by an intrinsic motivation designed to empower and elevate life outside of the gym.
According to McGonigal, research shows that a person’s motivation can make a big difference in sustaining exercise. “Motivation that feels personally meaningful makes it much more likely that a person will stick with it than motivation based on the desire for approval from other people, or a self-critical attitude,” she says.
Reframing the Why Behind the Workout
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” —Henry David Thoreau
As a culture, we are trained to place the lens on our faults, and as a species, we are conditioned to focus on the negative. Our nervous system has been evolving for millions of years, and our ancestors—in the need to survive—developed what neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (Harmony 2013) calls the “negativity bias.”
In other words, the reptilian part of our brain was hardwired to focus on what was wrong in our lives. And while our brain has evolved, the negativity bias has not, and as humans we allow negatives to stick to us like Velcro tape.
Fortunately, change is possible.
As fitness and wellness professionals, we can help our clients to focus on their strengths and in turn to elevate their sense of well-being. By asking a few high-powered questions, we can help people to remember the areas of their lives where they feel successful and energized and can shift their focus away from negative drivers such as weight loss. And with this information, we can build a fitness program around their strengths and create an environment in which our clients thrive both mentally and physically.
Empowering questions focus on strengths, are goal-oriented and are grounded in reality. Here are three high-powered questions to get you started with a client:
- What are some things from your past that you feel proud about?
- What energizes you in the present?
- What are you looking forward to in the near future?
Once you are aware of a client’s strengths, you can develop an exercise program that has the appropriate level of challenge to match his or her skill set. It is when these two elements align that the client will find “fitness flow.”
Finding Fitness Flow
Being in flow and having a self-critical attitude cannot happen at the same. This is why creating exercise programs in which clients feel successful and fully engaged is very important.
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper 2008), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, describes flow “as a state of intense absorption and involvement with the present moment. Being fully engaged in what you are doing and where time seems to fly by.”
The key to creating flow for our students is to strike the right balance between the challenges we ask of them and the skills they currently have to complete the task at hand. Too much challenge and our clients will feel anxious and unsuccessful. Not enough challenge and they will be bored. Finding flow for our students is the key to creating a program that excites them.
Maria Siros, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and an expert in teaching resilience, says, “When we shift the emphasis away from weight toward health and vitality, benefits accrue that not only change the shape of our bodies, but change the experience of how we see ourselves. Competence grows as well as confidence.”
Happiness is like a muscle; it requires daily attention and an assortment of training for best results. Cultivating gratitude for the body we are in, finding flow throughout our day and focusing on our strengths are all proven ways to begin to elevate the happiness meter.
When we change the motivation behind workouts, we can change our clients’ perception of fitness. We can be the champions who encourage clients to move because they love their bodies, not in order to love their bodies. We get to create a new paradigm when it comes to “thin being in.” Body shapes go in and out of style. Happiness will always be in fashion.
Blumenthal, J.A., et al. 2007. Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69 (7), 587-96.
Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. 1971. Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Apley (Ed.), Adaptation-Level Theory: A Symposium (pp. 287-302). New York: Academic Press.
Lyubomirsky, S. 2007. The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin.
Snowdon, D.A, 1997. Aging and Alzheimer’s disease: Lessons from the Nun Study. Gerontologist, 37 (2), 150-56.