What are internal rewards?

By A. G. Mohan and Dr. Ganesh Mohan

Winning them is key to healthy living

Positive change is closely tied to motivation and reward. After all, we are unlikely to be committed to change without anticipating some desired outcome. There are a few simple yet useful ways to classify and understand that desired outcome.

For instance, that reward can be internal or external.

Internal rewards are outcomes in our own bodies and minds. Examples of internal rewards could be feeling lighter in body, calmer in mind, balanced energy through the day, improved sleep quality, better digestion, positive emotions, etc. External rewards are related to outcomes outside of us, such as money, job, possessions, status and relationships. Mostly, we don’t need to be given examples of these — these are usually what we are taught to work toward, most of our lives, from when we are children.

This discussion is not about a moral choice between external and internal rewards. Both are acceptable motivations. Rather, the point to ponder is which is more useful to our well-being when we try to make positive changes. One important distinction is that external rewards are less stable and more dependent on circumstances. Internal rewards tend to be under our control more reliably.

Also, internal rewards such as improved states of body and mind lead us to a better life experience consistently. After all, in the absence of internal well-being it is difficult to experience well-being through changes in external circumstances alone. The best option is to cultivate a combination of internal and external rewards, but with an emphasis more on the internal than the external.

For example, if we choose to join a couple of our friends and exercise in the morning, it is worthwhile to set both internal and external goals. The external goals could be based on performance metrics in our exercise routine: how many times we are able to repeat an exercise, how much we are able to lift or push, how fast we are able to move, etc. The internal rewards could be about feeling strength and lightness in the body, the increased energy we experience throughout the day, the positive feelings that we nurture in ourselves through companionship with our friends, etc.

Another point to ponder is that some results can feel positive in the short-term, but not truly help us in the long-term. The long-term rewards may not be apparent immediately, but as they continue to accumulate, they may have a greater impact on the quality of our life in ways that we don’t experience right away. It is vital that we learn to appreciate the rewards that are more healthful, which may not happen immediately, as opposed to the rewards that are not so helpful, but which may be accessible right away.

For example, it may feel satisfying or rewarding to stay up a little longer and check emails or social media late at night. There is reward or gratification in this activity of staying awake and catching up with our digital life. If we go to bed earlier, we miss out on this immediate gratification, but we experience a different reward in sleeping better and waking up earlier. This will leave us feeling more energetic and well the next day. Setting useful goals or rewards for ourselves is a skill, key to sustainable and beneficial change — it is an important tool to accelerate our progress toward greater well-being.

This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.