People struggling to motivate themselves to engage in activities that are good for them, such as exercise or being more social, should tap into their imagination to visualise themselves carrying out the activity, according to new research from the University of Western Australia.
Dr Julie Ji and colleagues from UWA’s School of Psychological Science compared two strategies for motivating people to engage in pleasurable and achievement-oriented activities they wanted to do more of in their daily lives.
Published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, the study, Mental imagery-based episodic simulation amplifies motivation and behavioural engagement in planned reward activities, found that visual imagination-based motivational thinking, but not verbal reasoning-based motivational thinking, led to higher frequencies of activity engagement over the next week compared to simply scheduling the activities into a diary.
Making use of the human capacity to imagine future experiences was more successful at motivating behaviour, Dr Ji says.
“Our findings suggest that vividly imaging yourself actually doing the activity in the near future and pre-experiencing the most rewarding moments of that activity appears to boost motivation.
“In contrast, mentally going over all the reasons why you should exercise more, eat more healthily, be more social, and learn new things doesn’t seem to be very effective.”
Most interestingly, Dr Ji says, is that although both the visual imagining and analytical reasoning approaches increased people’s judgment of how rewarding the activity would be, visual imagining was unique in its ability to evoke positive emotions. This emotional impact, in turn, triggered a greater motivation increase.
Dr Ji says the study was relevant because of motivational and behavioural activation deficits across a wide range of health and mental health conditions, including physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles, social isolation and loneliness, and depressed mood.
“We know that regularly engaging in leisure and self-care activities, physical exercise and sports, socialising with others, and achievement-oriented activities are essential for maintaining our mental wellbeing, because they help us enjoy life and feel good about ourselves,” she says.
“Making sure we are keeping up regular engagement in rewarding activities is crucial for staying mentally resilient during times of stress and hardship, including living with repeated lockdowns in this current pandemic.”