Resolving to live healthier in 2016? Do it for pleasure, not virtue

After a holiday of excesses, ’tis the season of restraint and self-improvement. But how can you make your new year’s resolutions stick this time around?

University of Washington Foster School of Business Marketing Department Faculty, Lecturers and Phd. Student group and portrait shots

Nidhi Agrawal

We sought the advice of resident expert Nidhi Agrawal, the Michael G. Foster Associate Professor of Marketing whose frequent explorations—both experimental and experiential—of consumer behavior and the mechanics of willpower make her a good person to know this time of year. Also in the conversation was Nidhi’s doctoral student Chethana Achar, whose research holds a very pertinent finding.

Q: Is a new year’s resolution a worthwhile pursuit, or just an annual game we think we should play?

Nidhi: New Year is actually a great time to set up powerful, important life resolutions. We do that best when we are looking at a long-term perspective, as we are at the beginning of each year. Despite the fact that most people fail at their resolutions, it’s still a worthy exercise.

Q: How can we improve our odds of being successful?

Nidhi: My best advice is to set concrete resolutions. The more concrete, specific and routinized you make your goals, the more success you will have at attaining them. Because it will be harder to talk yourself out of something when you have made a concrete promise.

Q: Okay, that’s a good start. But there’s a difference between not talking yourself out of a commitment and changing behavior (for the better) over the long haul. How can you achieve that?

Nidhi: This sounds strange, but once you have set a very specific goal, then forget about what’s behind it. Forget that you are running or eating vegetables or drinking less for health. Wipe off the healthy obligation and populate it instead with some very pleasant associations.

Q: That does sound like strange advice. Shouldn’t we do healthy things because they are good for us?

Nidhi: The trouble is that we tend to take a clinical stance toward health, a very rational approach. This food is healthy because it is low calorie and has so many nutrients. So we should eat it.

Chethana is studying this phenomenon for her research.

Chethana: We ran a series of studies. In the first, we found that students exposed to advertisements touting the health benefits of spinach consumed fewer healthy snacks—baby carrots and cherry tomatoes—than students who had seen ads touting the tastiness of spinach (or no ads at all). In an online version of the study, participants who viewed the healthy spinach ads selected fewer healthy items for their virtual shopping carts.

For a different perspective, we set up a lemonade stand in a nearby neighborhood, which Nidhi’s kids and some other kids from the department ran.

Nidhi: Sheer genius. I got my grad student to babysit my kids and their friends.

Chethana: And all in the name of science!

We had the kids sell a regular size and a smaller sized lemonade for the same price. In one condition, they called the smaller serving size the “healthy option.” In another, they called the smaller size the “eco-friendly option,” pledging to donate a portion of every sale to People for the Puget Sound. Over three days, we found that sales of the smaller size were much higher when it was called the eco-friendly option. The healthy framing of a healthier option was less effective than the unrelated framing of a healthier option.

Q: Why were people turned off by patently “healthy” options?

Chethana: As Nidhi said, when we try to get people to eat healthy by emphasizing that the food is healthy, it comes across as something they ought to do. But when you take the conversation away from the health benefits and start talking about taste or experience, then it sort of removes the obligation of eating healthy and opens the possibility for an enjoyable experience. It makes people feel like it’s their choice, so they are more likely to make it on their own.

Q: Of course, we see a lot more advertising of sodas than of spinach.

Nidhi: There is an enormous mismatch between the amount of marketing done for processed foods versus whole foods. And what marketing there is of “healthy” foods is usually ineffective. Because healthy food is strong on health, we feel obligated to sell it on its health benefits. But that’s not what really what good marketers do. Many of the strongest brands are not selling a product’s core feature. They build imagery around it. They build positive associations around it. If Coke can provide happiness, why does broccoli have to be so boring and yucky?

Q: But if marketers aren’t lining up to imbue spinach or broccoli with positive associations, what can we do?

Nidhi: We can focus on building our own experience or imagery around the thing we are trying to eat or do to be healthier. For example, I only made a habit of drinking green tea after I became aware of all the beautiful history around it, the culture it carries. So now when I’m drinking green tea, I’m not thinking about the health benefits, or even the taste. My thoughts and maybe my taste are colored by these rich associations I have with it.

And that you can build for anything. I’ve been trying to get myself to run. And I find that my likelihood of running is much greater if I make an appointment to do it with someone who is really pleasant. So now I’m not looking forward to the run, but I may look forward to catching up with that friend of mind.

You have to snap out of the mindset that health is just about health, and move to the mindset of doing healthy things for the pleasure they bring. It’s a matter of thinking of that vegetable or that exercise or that positive habit as something that contributes pleasure to your life.

Q: Does your intimate knowledge of what drives our healthy or unhealthy choices enter into your own decision-making processes?

Chethana: Yes! All the time. Every waking moment.

Nidhi: For me, I don’t think as much about what will help me make healthy decisions today. I look at it in hindsight. Why did I make that unhealthy choice? You’ll get there, Chethana.

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