The Science Behind Rewarding Ourselves

Georgie explains how important personal reward systems are when achieving our goals and staying motivated in our daily lives, sharing her top tips for doing so!

I think it can be agreed that we all love a little treat. For myself, the thought of a chocolate bar after work, getting that piercing I’ve been wanting or planning a holiday makes life seem that tiny bit easier. Planning rewards within our lives allows for psychological reinforcement and improved overall mental health.


As we enter February, I’ve been thinking a lot about the success (or really, failure) of my new year’s resolutions. Motivation levels have dwindled amid the January blues and many others I have spoken to feel the same. It is a tricky feeling to shake but a look into our psychology can help change our mindset. According to research produced by Harvard University, our modern brains are still wired for the ancient evolutionary purpose of survival in a dangerous environment. This means our neural structures selectively focus on danger signals, such as the anxiety and fear that may come from trying something new or attempting something we’re not so keen on. Finding ways to bring joy and fun back into the mix are the solution, and consciously doing this can assist in our mindset change, resulting in improved mental health.

Rewards and habits

I think we all have habits we’d love to develop and some we’re keen to break. The theory of positive reinforcement is a key factor in this and neatly encompasses the benefits of treating ourselves in habit making/breaking. It assists us in looking forward to things which make us happy, which then allows the production of dopamine so we can feel good and stay motivated. More broadly, positive reinforcement is a part of the theory of operant conditioning, basically that we learn through reward and punishment. Therefore, if a behaviour is followed by a reward, then we are more likely to repeat that behaviour. Rewards then can work as markers for progress, as they define and communicate the behaviours, we need to reach our goals. As part of this, rewards have the ability to improve our confidence and engagement in new skills and activities. When our brain begins to understand that good output equals good input, we can relax easier and even engage more in our contributions to the world around us.

Internal and external rewards

Awards aren’t just external, like a holiday or a nice meal, they can be internal too. Our emotions and state of mind are direct factors in how we view something, thus they can also function as rewards within themselves. Feelings of happiness as a project is finished, or the pride you feel when you have completed a task well are examples of internal reward.

Practices that help with rewarding yourself

  •  Visualise – imagine the feeling of relief or happiness once a project is done or picture the physical and mental benefits that can come from that new positive habit you’re aiming for! Visualising is a part of our internal rewarding system and helps us stay on track.
  •  Making plans (list, physical plans) – one of my favourite things to do when I have a particularly busy period, is to take some time and plan how and when I’m going to reward myself at the end. Looking forward to it really helps my mental health, and they often range from buying myself a McDonald’s to taking a holiday.
  •  Consistent and intermittent rewards – it is important to recognise the type of reward we should be aiming for, according to what our goals are and the stage you are in them. Consistent rewards are great for establishing new habits, and regular rewards help us create the association between a behaviour and a positive result. However, intermittent rewards help us maintain those behaviours, as we keep performing the behaviour in the hope of a reward coming around again.

Personal reward systems are key to staying motivated in our daily lives and achieving our goals. But remember a treat can just be a treat! You don’t have to stick to a pattern of rewards aimed at a certain thing, you might have just had a rough day. An awareness of these psychological theories and processes though can help us more consciously achieve our goals and lead to improved and better-balanced mental health.

Written by Georgie Greer