If you’re a human being alive on planet Earth, chances are, you’ve got habits. Some of those habits we like, while some of our habits nag us because they don’t serve a healthy purpose yet they don’t easily fall away. As Mark Twain famously said about habits, “quitting smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Indeed there’s a huge industry built upon helping the helpless defeat their overeating habits, sugar habits, poor exercise habits, smoking habits and more. But what exactly is a habit anyways? Where do they come from, why are they here, and is there a simple approach to our habits that can better enlighten and empower us? I’ve got some ideas about all this – it’s a habit of mine to try to figure this sort of thing out – so tell me what you think:
In the simplest of definitions, habits are thoughts or activities that we repeat again and again.
Some habits are the kind that we enact willfully and consciously – like taking a walk every day – while others express themselves in an automatic and unconscious fashion – like mindlessly overeating whenever we eat. We’re going to pay special attention here to the second kind of habit, the ones that we tend to fight, and that have a strange power to linger on despite our best efforts. For sure, habits do seem to have a life of their own, as few people will ever say “Gee, I’d love to work on and develop and overeating habit.”
There’s no work to do in generating such habits, because the habit does itself. So here’s one of the most basic psycho-biological facts about habits: the mind is, by nature, habitual. Each of us has an inborn, habit-forming process that is designed in large part to help us with one of the most important tasks of survival and evolution – learning.
Have you ever observed a small child learn something new?
When I played peek-a-boo with my then 5-month-old son, covering my eyes and pulling my hands away, he laughed with excitement as predicted. I imagined that after 6 or 7 peek-a-boos the humor would wear off, and it would be “game over” – but he wanted to peek-a-boo forever, drooling and laughing each time. Peek-a-boo was more than just a game; my son was learning what psychologists call “object constancy.” To an infant’s mind, when a ball disappears behind a couch or eyes disappear behind hands, they’re gone forever. Seeing my face return was an epically amusing experience because what he thought was supposed to happen – face disappear into oblivion – did not. And he wanted to see it over and over because human beings learn through repetition. The nervous system is programmed at the most basic level to learn important information by repeating it. How many times will a child sing the ABC song in its zest for learning? And how many times will we, as adults, make the same mistakes in life until we learn our lesson? I think you get the picture.
The process of habituating, of repeating something over and over, essentially serves another interesting primitive-brain purpose – to move us towards that which brings pleasure and away from that which brings pain. The learning process is naturally pleasurable, so we will instinctively repeat any learning behavior that provides us with more knowledge and control of our environment. Even when we first learned not to stick our fingers in the fire, though the event was painful, the new learning ensures future pleasure: no more burn. The habit of avoiding placing one’s flesh in the fire is thus born.
Unfortunately, this process of repetition of pleasure is easily distorted. For example, at some time in the past we may have come home from school or work after a distressing day, had some ice cream, and felt better almost immediately. The mind then quietly recorded, “feel bad, eat ice cream, feel good.” On the next downer of a day, the mind will automatically repeat this useful behavior, and thus an ice cream habit is born. We have learned to secure temporary pleasure while avoiding immediate pain.
The 2 Types of Habits
Let’s divide habits into 2 basic categories: positive and negative. Or think of it as “wanted” and “unwanted” habits. The words positive and negative are not meant here as a moral judgment as to the inherent goodness or evilness of a habit, but rather neutral terms describing the effects of these habits, and the biologic consequences that the habit evokes. A negative habit is a behavior that is repeated mechanically and automatically. It drains or disperses our energy, has harmful repercussions on the body or emotions, and goes against what we most want for ourselves.
Characteristically, negative habits have some immediate positive or pleasurable benefits. However, these benefits are short-lived and may eventually yield harmful consequences. An example of a negative habit is excess smoking. Smoking a cigarette gives people the immediate benefit of calmness and emotional security. Over time, an increased amount of cigarette smoking is needed to provide the same effect, and if this habit it repeated often enough, shortness of breath, congestion, and lung disease may result.
The human challenge here, is this: the same part of the mind that automatically replays, “feel bad, smoke cigarette, feel good” is not the part of us that can evaluate the continued usefulness of this habit, for without self-reflection and awareness, our mechanical nature will dominate. The distinguishing feature of negative habits is that they come naturally, take little effort to develop, and quickly gain a momentum of their own that is difficult to offset.
So, if negative habits are automatic, self-repeating and unconscious, it follows then that the simple ingredient, which must be present to work with any negative or unwanted habit, is always this: consciousness.
Consciousness here means awareness, wakefulness, presence and eyes wide open. It means we invoke the part of us that meditators often call “the witness state.” I know this is easier said than done, and yet, there’s no magic pill that eradicates an unwanted habit. Life is compelling us to wake up, moment to moment, in the face of any behavior we’re trying to let go of. As the famous Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls proclaimed, “Awareness cures.”
So instead of the common strategy of fighting a habit, we awaken ourselves when we might, for example, overeat, and ask the question: “Is this what I wish to choose in this moment? Will I continue on automatic pilot, or do I choose not to eat?” Interestingly enough, even if we ask ourselves this question and choose in the moment to continue eating, we’ve actually “exercised” our choosing muscle, and made it stronger. The next time, when faced with the same choice, our ability to choose and accept any choice becomes stronger, and even more compassionate. We’ve strengthened our “awareness” bank account, and can readily use its assets.
Facing our unwanted habitual thoughts, or health draining food habits, or any habit that limits our life force and self-expression – is an act of self-evolution. Life calls us, through our personal challenges, to grow. It’s not about fighting self, hating self, hating the habit, or attacking our own weaknesses. It’s about following a path with a heart, and gently guiding ourselves back home.
Have you ever successfully transformed an unwanted habit with the power of awareness?
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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