Why is it so difficult to change our lifestyles even though we know what is good for us?

Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep. While everyone knows about healthy ways of living, adhering to them is often difficult. Matti Heino, a researcher specialising in health behaviour and motivational processes, explains why.

The exercise class is about to start, it’s raining, and you’re tired. And you should walk the dog too.

When you realise that you are once again coming up with obstacles in the path of a new sports hobby embarked on with good intentions, it may be better to try a different tack.

“In terms of lifestyle change, it’s important to try to find out ways of doing things that suit you personally,” Matti Heino says.

Heino works at the University of Helsinki as a researcher of health behaviour and motivational processes in the field of social psychology.

According to Heino, many people typically make the mistake of trying to copy models from newspaper articles and other such sources. These models are not necessarily a good match for personal circumstances or motivation.

“And when they don’t work, people think themselves to be at fault.”

Successful change is not solely a personal matter

According to Heino, what makes it difficult to change health habits and lifestyles is their linkage to so many things in our everyday lives.

“There are a lot of different forces pulling us in different directions. We are travelling as if in a stream with different currents. The directions we can take are not merely up to our own action.”

Making change requires individual traits, such as knowledge, capabilities and motivation. In addition, you need a number of both physical and social opportunities that enable change. Do you have, for example, the required time, equipment or money? What are the activities and attitudes of the people around you?

“We are dependent on other people and our surroundings, which is why we must consider our surroundings in everything we do.”

Changing behaviour always affects others as well. In fact, change is costrained by human efforts to maintain the surrounding system. It also has its uses.

“If we were able to change everything in our environment, there would be no permanent society. Circumstances would be constantly shifting.”

Forget about coercion, invest in appeal

People often say that they have a lot or little motivation for something. However, Heino posits that there are many kinds of motivation.

Nourishing autonomous motivation helps achieve success in change. That is when people do things because they value and enjoy them, not due to internal or external pressure.

Autonomous motivation can be boosted by doing things that give you a sense of control, which generate feelings of capability and competence, and which strengthen your connection with others.

“For instance, you can ask a like-minded friend to join in,” Heino says.

Research indicates that people are able to change their behaviour considerably more easily in groups than on their own.

If you wish to succeed, positive feelings should be enhanced, while coercing oneself to do things should be reduced. Increasing appeal and ease helps to make change permanent.

Information on suitable ways to realise lifestyle changes can be obtained by conducting a large number of low-threshold micro-experiments, where failure is permitted.

“You can try things out with the mindset that you are accumulating information on whether something works in your current life situation,” Heino says.

Easy experiments are also more likely to give feelings of success, than immediately taking the plunge towards drastic change.

“We need wins in our everyday lives. They motivate us and tell us what to increase and what to decrease in the current circumstances.”