THE BLOG
11/12/2011 10:39 am ET | Updated Jan 12, 2012

Can You Train Your Brain for Healthy Behavior?

When it comes to our pursuit to live healthier, happier, more meaningful lives, the Web offers us an unprecedented number of resources to aid us on our quest. From expert advice and health tips to low-calorie recipes and yoga poses, nearly all information in recorded history is now accessible within just a few clicks. Have you noticed that this seeming avalanche of resources has not produced the utopia everyone once predicted? How is it that so many of us continue to struggle to achieve that quintessential life? Obviously, knowing what to do is not the problem. So, what is the answer?

If you are like me, the hardest parts of developing healthier habits are first simply knowing where to start and, second, keeping at it long enough to result in changes actually becoming habits. Sustained personal engagement is critical to making behavioral changes stick and can be improved dramatically in any experience by making it fun, making it rewarding and most importantly making it personal.

Engagement is Increased by Fun and Rewarding Experiences

Gamification, the term coined for leveraging the behavioral psychology behind gaming mechanics to drive behavior in non-game contexts such as purchasing behaviors and, increasingly, heath-related behaviors has been proven to significantly improve engagement. Whether it's point systems, social challenges, digital badging or leveling up, these mechanics tap into basic human psychology. Gamification is showing up everywhere, from the Wii Fit to Nike +, from Weight Watchers to corporate wellness programs, and even on the dashboard of Ford's new hybrid car.

Over the last 18 months there have been a stunning number of "gamified" Web and mobile health solutions entering the marketplace. A majority of these offerings have been focused on promoting increased physical activity and involve virtual reward systems. The evolution of these offerings and their growing popularity are a testament to their value. It's important to note that while rewards can make a big difference, they are just one part of an effective solution.

Personal Context Increases Chances of Success

Research has shown that reward systems, whether digital or real (money and things), are effective at incenting behaviors in the short term but that deeper personal meaning provides a much more effective incentive. Dan Pink does a nice job summarizing this body of research in his recent book "Drive" (see a short video summary here). This research demonstrated that people are much more likely to follow through when they are intrinsically motivated, rather than extrinsically motivated. In other words, am I doing this because it matters to me? Or, am I doing something because it matters to someone else. For example, look at the current corporate wellness trend. Companies across the country now have employee programs for all manner of health-related behaviors, and employees have various financial and social incentives to participate. It's an all too common story for an employee to show up to a counseling session or weight loss class in order to earn a discount on their health insurance premiums, and to then stop at their favorite fast food restaurant on their way home. Complying is not the same as committing. When people are given autonomy to focus on what really matters to them, and when the behaviors they adopt are based on personal values, their chances of success are exponentially increased.

If you would like to learn more about the work I am doing in this field, please visit our website at http://www.mindbloom.com/about/.

Brent is the co-founder and CEO of Mindbloom, a company that's out to make life improvement accessible to everyone. Until founding Mindbloom, Brent spent the balance of his career designing and implementing significant components of Amazon.com's operations.