Celebration is really hard for me. I used to feel that celebration is only for achieving something you didn’t expect to achieve, but after I’ve done something, I was clearly expected to have done it, so what is there to celebrate? Instead, I historically have pushed on to the next challenge.
Yet researchers like BJ Fogg say that celebrating is how you create new habits. Your brain is designed to try to do more of the things that get celebrated. So if I want to change my behavior, I need to celebrate every step, however small, towards that new behavior. Or, as James Clear puts it, the way to change yourself is to “1. Decide the type of person you want to be.” then “2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.”
My clients often get frustrated after they identify the new behavior they want, but find that their brain has been wired to default to the old habits that previously brought them success. So as a coach, I often find myself pointing out small wins and celebrating them; even noticing when they fell back into an old habit is cause for celebration, because only by noticing that reaction can they choose a different action in the future. That celebration helps to start rewiring the brain, by disrupting the streamlined old neural pathways, and creating new neural pathways to respond to certain situations.
Celebration is also an underrated way to change other people’s behaviors. People want to do more of whatever gets them praised, so if you celebrate a behavior, you’ll get more of that behavior. If you catch them doing something even vaguely in the direction you want, praise it in the moment. This is an effective way to build influence even without being a manager; nobody gets enough praise in corporate America, so people are starved for positive feedback, and respond very well to those who offer it.
I am also trying to take this celebration approach to parenting. On the activities I care about, it is remarkably effective; my son loves biking, skiing, and now the climbing gym. I firmly believe that his enthusiasm is at least in part because I really celebrated his efforts while he was learning. It brings me such joy for him to do these activities, and he can feel that blast of joy and wants more of it, and keeps trying. And that’s how habits form.
Positive feedback is also valuable for little kids because it tells them what to do more of. I often find myself saying “Don’t do that!” or “No!” which is frustrating for my kids, because they are being told not to follow their instincts. Positive feedback gives them an idea of what they should do instead; by celebrating when they do a preferred behavior, they now have two behavior guideposts: the negative feedback of what is undesired, and the positive feedback of what is desired.
While I love celebrating others, I struggle to do it for myself, so I’ve learned to compensate by enlisting others around me to help. This started off somewhat accidentally through finding accountability partners to help me navigate life changes, but I’ve since realized that having somebody else to acknowledge and celebrate the small steps makes it easier to keep going on the path of change. So I’ve currently got an accountability partner for book writing, I have another accountability group to set weekly intentions and celebrate progress towards those intentions, and I still have regular calls with my coaching accountability partner. Connecting with other people help me to notice and celebrate the progress I’m making towards my desired identities, and help me to recognize myself for what I’m doing well and want to continue doing, rather than my default negative self-feedback of beating myself up for what I’m not doing.
In other words, I am practicing celebration with others to build self-celebration as a habit, instead of my previously wired behavior of self-criticism. Self-criticism brought me a lot of conventional success, and kept me pushing to exceed all expectations, but it also caused me to burn out, and wasn’t great for my mental health. Celebrating new behaviors I want to build feels much healthier than viciously criticizing myself when I don’t live up to my imagined Platonic ideal self as a parent, as a husband, as a friend, as a coach, etc.
What are you currently celebrating in your life? What new behaviors do you want to build that you can celebrate more?