The Unexpected Benefits of Celebration

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August 2016 was a wild time for me. Three months prior, with no experience and little idea what I was getting myself into, I opened Robin’s Cafe. We were just figuring out how to operate the restaurant and August was our busiest month so far.

I also was just one month out from hosting Responsive Conference, my first convening about the future of work.

But one thing stands out from that time more than any other: a phone call to my father at the end of each day to report on the numbers. While so much of sales is dominated by aggression and pressure, the call with my father developed into a sweet habit. “We sold two tickets to Responsive!” I’d report, or “Today, we broke $10,000 at the restaurant for the first time!” During one of the most stressful months of my life, those short phone calls are a reason I came to love selling and the thing I remember the most. 

Knowing now what I do about behavior change, it makes sense that those celebratory phone calls made a difference. Celebration, as it happens, is a secret trick for forming new habits quickly and easily.

Emotions create habits

Here’s how it works: when we have a pleasurable experience, dopamine is released in the brain. Over time, we learn to repeat that behavior for the resulting dopamine hit. 

We tend to think that emotions occur as a result of a behavior. I do something successfully and then feel good as a result. Behavior -> dopamine.

But actually this pattern works in reverse, too. I can deliberately decide to feel good and that good feeling triggers dopamine, which reinforces the behavior. Dopamine -> behavior.

This reversal of the typical f behavior -> dopamine pattern opens up a hack for reinforcing desired behaviors quickly and easily. By cultivating a feeling of success and confidence (in other words, by celebrating), we manufacture an internal state in which we’re more likely to repeat a new behavior and turn it into a habit.

Learn to Celebrate

Celebration can take many forms. 

When I get out of my 39 degree cold plunge, I scream like The Hulk. At other times, I just say “yes” to myself in the mirror, pump my fist, or tell myself I’ve done a good job. During that memorable month in August 2016, I phoned my father to celebrate the day’s numbers. 

The key is to feel good about ourselves, intentionally, for a few moments.

Celebrate Together

Celebrating with another person is an easy path towards solidifying habits. I can’t say for sure that Robin’s Cafe and Responsive Conference wouldn’t have been a success without those nightly celebratory calls with my dad, but I do know those phone calls ingrained my sales habit, which contributed to the success of those businesses.

One of my favorite practices is the “What went well” exercise, coined by the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman in his book Flourish. Phone a friend and celebrate one thing that’s gone well today. That simple act of celebrating changes your state and reinforces the celebrated behavior.

Practice Celebrating

One additional trick to use celebration to create a dopamine pathway and thus to cultivate new habits is to practice, multiple times and in quick iteration the new behavior we want and to celebrate the behavior each time.

For instance, one habit I’m cultivating is taking a supplement called Glycemic Health after every meal. I can celebrate, explicitly, whenever I take Glycemic Health after a meal, but I can also open the bottle of Glycemic Health and celebrate, close the bottle, put it away, then come back mere moments later and repeat this behavior and the celebration. 

Doing this 10 times in a row will give me a lot of practice celebrating this new behavior (I.e. opening my bottle of Glycemic Health), which will then encode the sensation of feeling good with having opened the bottle. As a result, I’m much more likely to reach for the supplement.

Looking back seven years later, I’m proud of all that I accomplished building Robin’s Cafe and Responsive Conference. Mostly, though, what I remember is the good feeling I manufactured through celebrating each evening with my father. Amidst a trying time, I found solace in a nightly routine and felt good about myself, reinforced a sales habit that has served me well ever since, and strengthened my relationship with my father.

Further Reading

Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg – I’m biased because I had the chance to work closely with BJ Fogg and his behavior change lab at Stanford, but he’s written more thoughtfully about the value of celebration in habit formation than anyone else I’ve seen.

Here’s an article BJ wrote for TED.com on how to use celebration for habit formation, specifically.

Flourish by Martin Seligman – Marty Seligman is the founder of Positive Psychology, the branch of psychology dedicated to improving wellbeing. Flourish is his seminal work on happiness and wellbeing, summarizing 10 years of research into what actually works to improve the human condition.

Responsive: What It Takes To Create a Thriving OrganizationFrom Navy SEALs in Iraq to technology giants experimenting in Silicon Valley, from the inner workings of a sex cult to how a group of anonymous activists can change politics, I wrote this book to distilled tactics from forward-thinking practitioners about building resilient organizations. And if you get it today, Responsive is free on Amazon!

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