by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Wellness Author Paolo TerniDr. Paolo Terni is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology program and an International Coach Federation Professional Certified Coach. He works with executives to develop their leadership skills and their ability to thrive at work and in life. He is the author of several peer-reviewed papers and of many books, including: Coaching Leader (2007); How to Make Change Easier: The Power of the Solution-Focused Approach Taught by 9 Children’s Stories (2012); and The 10 Ingredients for Mastery: How to Achieve Excellence Using Positive Psychology (2015).

Well-Being Practitioner: Chapter 1’s takeaway message in your book, The 10 Ingredients of Mastery: How to Achieve Excellence Using Positive Psychology, is to pursue mastery in something that matters to you. If my employer is offering me a cash incentive to change a health behavior, but I’m really not intrinsically motivated to make the change, am I likely to be successful? Why/why not?

Terni: The cash incentive might be effective to get you started, but you will be much more likely to keep at it if intrinsic motivation kicks in at some point. For example, let’s say that your employer is offering you a cash incentive to go to the gym. That might get you to shift from thinking about going to the gym to actually going to the gym. So in the short term the incentive might work. The first few weeks might be fun. But then 2 things happen. First, you get habituated to the incentive — in your mind, those extra bucks are no longer a big deal. Second, you will hit rough times: days when you are tired; days when the gym feels boring; days when it’s raining and the couch looks so tempting. You will start skipping days and eventually quit, unless in the meantime you have developed your own reasons for going to the gym. Maybe you made friends there; maybe you enjoyed the post-workout high; or maybe being fit became part of who you are. Whatever it is, it must be something that matters to you.

WBP: You suggest that starting out, individuals should focus on mastery goals — progress toward an objective — rather than outcomes or performance goals. What are some ways wellness professionals can put that into practice with employees at a worksite?

Terni: A mastery goal is about getting better rather than about performing well or achieving a specific outcome. So at first a mastery goal like “getting better at running” is more useful than “running at a 9 minute/mile pace” (performance goal) or “running a marathon” (outcome goal). Of course we need to define “getting better,” and in our example it could simply be increasing the number of minutes you run each week. It’s easy to make progress toward this goal, because all you need to do is to run 1 more minute than last week. Doable and yet important, because as Teresa Amabile at Harvard discovered, making small progress on something that (again!) is meaningful to you is one of the best predictors in the workplace of better moods, better outlook on life, and increased intrinsic motivation. Once you show up consistently on your running days, and the weekly minutes become hours, then you can shift to performance or outcome goals.

This principle applies to anything in wellness workplace settings: getting better at teaching yoga, getting better at managing employees, getting better at delivering presentations — as long as you define how you measure “getting better.”

WBP: Does having a “greater-than-you” long-term goal work for health behavior change? Can you give us an example?

Terni: Yes, I believe it does work. A “greater-than-you” goal means doing something not for you, but for something greater than you: the common good, God, your family. For example, you might choose to be healthy because of the belief that you are the steward of the body and life that God gifted you or because by being healthy you can serve your profession better. I personally know people who decided to take better care of themselves once a “greater-than-them” goal appeared on the horizon. In one case it was the birth of a son; in the other it was the birth of a grandchild. In both cases my friends committed to be healthy so they could provide for their families and leave a legacy.

WBP: We’ve long held that changing long-term poor health habits is hard, hard work. Yet many of our colleagues suggest that little changes here and there add up. Where do you stand on the issue?

Terni: First of all, I would recommend shifting perspective.

Rather than thinking of breaking bad habits, think of replacing them with good ones. For example, instead of focusing on breaking the bad habit of snacking on candies, focus on substituting it with the habit of snacking on apples. It is much easier to replace a bad habit with a good one than it is to break a bad one.

Having said that, I would agree that little changes can make a big difference. For example, in a classic 2006 study, researchers at Cornell found that workers would eat twice as many candies a day if the treats were placed in a clear container (7.7) than if they were in an opaque container (4.6). In both cases the containers were on the workers’ desks. Out of sight, out of mind indeed. Furthermore, when researchers moved the containers just 6 feet away, the number of candies dropped in each condition, to 5.6 and 3.1 respectively. The difference between having the treats on your desk in a clear container and having them a few feet away in an opaque container amounts to 4.6 fewer candies per day. So, yes, that adds up.

On the other hand, while we can adopt several strategies to make change easier for our clients, we also need to make clear to them that hard times are to be expected — that is normal. My thesis adviser at the University of Pennsylvania is Angela Duckworth, the world expert on grit, or stamina and perseverance. The core message of her research is that hard work is a key determinant of success, and that experiencing difficulties or setbacks is part of the process of getting better.

WBP: That makes me think of a maxim at Health Enhancement Systems that says “there’s value in struggle.” It is similar to your idea that effort is good, but that you need a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. Can you explain what you mean in the context of trying to adopt better health habits?

Terni: A fixed mindset about a trait is the belief that you are born that way, and you will remain that way, no matter what you do. If something feels effortful, then that means you reached the ceiling: Whatever you are trying to do, you were not cut out for it. If, on the other hand, you have a growth mindset, you believe that you can develop your abilities if you put enough disciplined work into it. So if something feels effortful, it’s a good sign because effort means that you are pushing the envelope of your comfort zone.

This applies to pursuing health goals as well. Let’s suppose you start exercising and it feels hard. If you have a fixed mindset, you might conclude that exercise is not meant for you, but it is meant for people who are younger than you, slimmer than you, more flexible than you… and you quit. If, on the other hand, you have a growth mindset, believing exercise is hard is a good thing — you are going out of your comfort zone, and that is the only way to grow.

By the way, this is why the mastery goals or “getting better” goals that we talked about before are so useful when starting out. When using a mastery goal you are not comparing yourself to other people (“becoming better than my colleague”) and you are not comparing yourself to external standards (“doing 25 push-ups”). You are simply comparing yourself today with yourself yesterday. Any sign of progress counts and feeds your motivation.

WBP: You’re a regular contributor to Fulfillment Daily (fulfillmentdaily.com). In one of our favorite posts you point out that just fantasizing about achieving something big can work against you, which seems to contradict the if you see it, you can be it thinking we all learned somewhere along the way. Can you explain what you mean with a health behavior example?

Terni: Thank you for your kind words. The article you mention is based on research by Gabriele Oettingen at NYU. She discovered we are so good with imagination that fantasizing about reaching a goal tricks us into thinking we’ve achieved the goal! We know this because when people are invited to fantasize about a desired outcome they have a relaxation response and are less likely to take action to achieve their goal. In short, fantasizing is a good stress-busting technique but not conducive to achievement. What we should do instead is the following:


  1. Write down a wish, such as losing 30 pounds.
  2. Write down a positive effect of that, for example fitting in those cool-looking slim jeans. So far so good — still about fantasy. But here we switch gears…
  3. Write down an obstacle to achieving the goal; for example, the fact that when you have a long day at work, on your way home you often pick up fast food.
  4. Write down what you’re going to do about that obstacle; for example, when you know you have long days at work, you take some time in the morning to prep a healthy dinner.
  5. Repeat steps 2 to 4 at least once more.

If you do that, you should have the following in writing: 2 positive effects of reaching your goal and 2 obstacles you might face, together with plans to overcome them. It is this contrast between fantasy and reality that proves to be energizing.

WBP: For those of us still working diligently to master the art of population health improvement, what 1 or 2 resources would you recommend to get better at our craft? 

Terni: A commendable and hard task!

I think a great resource is the work done by many researchers on small nudges to shift behaviors in a healthier direction. For the more pragmatically oriented, Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating provides tested strategies to facilitate healthier eating by tweaking the environment. For readers more interested in population-wide interventions, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler and Sunstein is a very intriguing read.

Another great resource, and here I might surprise you, is the research on self-compassion done by Kristin Neff, now at the University of Texas and author of: Self-compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Especially when trying to get healthier, people might feel trapped between unhealthy behaviors that are often an attempt to self-medicate and feelings of guilt for not being healthier. That might trigger some very difficult conflicts within, and self-compassion is a way out.


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