What’s a habit, why are habits so important and why are bad habits so hard to break?
I never realized how much of our behavior is habitual and how beneficial that is. If we had to think about how to do everything we do we would be exhausted and wouldn’t accomplish much. As I type these words, as my fingers dance over the keyboard I’m reminded of when I first learned to type and how trying and cumbersome it was to learn. Now typing is a habit, I give zero thought to the act of typing, all I think about when I type is what I want to say.
According to Charles Duhigg (2012) a habit is a behavior that starts as a choice and then becomes a nearly unconscious behavior. Here, for me, the most important word is unconscious. The unconscious part of habit formation is both our friend and our enemy. Like I said at the beginning of this post if we didn’t have habits, if we had to think about everything we did, we wouldn’t do much. Habits allow us to relegate the everyday tasks (making coffee, brushing our teeth, driving, etc) to the unconscious, freeing up mental energy, which allows us to think more complex thoughts. Habits allow our brains to be more efficient, in this case making habits our friend.
Every habit begins from a psychological pattern called a habit loop. A habit loop consists of three elements – a cue, a routine and a reward. A cue is what triggers the behavior, it tells your brain to go into automatic mode and sets off a consistent routine. A routine is basically the behavior itself, it is the most obvious part of a habit. Lastly there is the reward. The reward is what makes you repeat this loop over and over, it’s the positive outcome of the behavior. Remember all of this is unconscious.
The unconscious part of this process becomes our enemy when we want to change bad habits. Because cues tend to be unconscious, habit loops take on a life of their own. To begin with, in order to break bad habits we must become aware of what triggers our bad habit. This is the tricky part, given that by definition this whole process is pretty unconscious.
Starting today what can you do differently to change your habits? According to Duhigg (2012) one way to change a habit is to keep the cue and the reward and change the behavior. However, in order to do this you must become aware of the cue. What triggers the behavior you want to change (remember habits are unconscious)? One of the best ways to become aware of what triggers behavior you’d like to change is to track the cycle of the loop. According to Duhigg, if you can diagnose your habit, you can change your behavior. So for the next few weeks, watch what you do, take notes, become aware of what triggers the behavior you’d like to change. Most of all remember real change happens slowly.
I’ve never met a person who doesn’t want to be happy. So what is keeping us from being happy?
Actually the Declaration of Independence tells us what is keeping people from being happy. Most people focus on the happiness part of the pursuit of happiness. They seem to over look the pursuit part, as I see it this is a big problem. As I’ve said many times, contrary to what most people think, we aren’t entitled to be happy just because we think we are, or because we wake up in the morning or because … you name it. Happiness is really hard work.
Why don’t people work as hard to become happy as they do to become physically fit, learn something new or make more money? I think it is because many people have the misconception that happiness is a destination. The belief is, if I (fill this in with anything – marry, make more money, have fun) then I will be happy. Happiness is not a destination, it’s not Miami Beach. Happiness is more like Disneyland. You can visit it, and you can visit more and more often the harder you work at it. The irony here is that, in theory, working hard and achieving something tends to make us happy, except most people don’t know that, so they just feel sorry for themselves for having to work so hard (at something that should just happen). No one leaves this earth having lived happily ever after without having worked hard at it.
Starting today what can you do differently to work hard to make yourself happy. You can set goals, achievable, relevant ones. Ones you can break down into small steps, so that you can actively pursue them. You can join a group, a charity, a religious group or a political group. Being part of something bigger than yourself gives life meaning and it also makes you feel good. You can learn something new, preferably something that will challenge you. According to Michael Csikszentmihalyi the most productive state a person can enter is a state of flow, when the task at hand is challenging but not overly challenging. The bonus here is that learning something new also gives us a sense of achievement and according to Martin Seligman achievement is a pillar of happiness. You can learn some form of mindfulness meditation. Again learning something new tends to make people happy. And needless to say learning to be mindful, being in the present also tends to make us happy.
Starting today what will you choose to do differently?
What are negative emotions, why do they make us so uncomfortable and why are they so important?
Negative emotions are really important!
Needless to say, most people hate feeling bad, they hate feeling sad, angry, anxious, lonely (how many negative emotions can you list?) Most people think if they don’t focus on the bad feelings they will just go away. Just think good thoughts! Talk about magical thinking! Truth be told the more we ignore our negative feelings the bigger and longer the hold they have on us. Truth be told when we acknowledge our negative emotions, when we let them in, they will go away or at least the shorter they stay. Contrary to what most people think when we acknowledge our bad feelings they don’t overstay their welcome, acknowledging them allows us to process them and move on. The process of acknowledging our negative feelings is akin to opening the door to let them out. Pretending they are not there robs us of this opportunity, granting the negative emotions more time to rule our lives.
Negative emotions are important because they serve a purpose. They are data, they tell us something about what is going on in our lives. Negative emotions are like those yellow warning lights, telling us something is wrong. If you are anxious in your relationship, unhappy at work, jealous of a friend, angry at your children. All of these negative emotions are telling you something is happening. We don’t need to act out on our negative emotions, but we do need to heed them and do something about them.
Starting today what can you do differently? Challenge yourself to see negative emotions in a new light. Start by expanding your negative emotions vocabulary. There are so many negative emotions, we tend to stick to just a few. Next, when you are feeling bad, instead of trying to push the emotion away, ask yourself, “What is this feeling trying to tell me?” Asking yourself this question will give you a different way to react to the negative emotion and maybe motivate you to do something about it as opposed to acting out on it or ignoring it. Be curious, instead of letting the negative emotion take over.
Question – What does your mind do when you practice gratitude?
Answer – It scans your day.
Why is this important?
First, let me explain a little about questions. When you ask yourself a question the question sends your mind in search of an answer. When you ask yourself, “What am I grateful for today?” That question sends your mind scanning through your day looking for those things for which you are grateful. The question has the benefit of focusing your mind on something specific – for what you are grateful – the good parts of your day, your brain tends to only look at those aspects of your day.
Due to a variety of reasons, we tend to focus more on the negative than we do on the positive. Our brains naturally scan for all the bad things in our lives, we don’t even have to ask ourselves a question for this to happen. The act of scanning your day looking for what you are grateful allows you to reacquaint yourself with all of the good things that have happened during the day/week/month. Scanning helps you look through your day, the question that sets your mind scanning allows you to focus your mind on the good parts of your day/life/relationships/past. Habitual scanning for the good has the benefit of rewiring your brain to offset the natural tendency to focus on the negative. What you do with the results of the scan is your choice.
Starting today what can you do differently? In order to get the biggest bang for your buck when practicing gratitude scan your day for the smallest, most obscure and specific events for which to be grateful. Those events for which you find yourself saying, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” Those are the events you want to make a habit of scanning for. Make a habit of priming your children for the good by asking them about the good things of their day. This way you will teach them how to scan their days, during the day they will be more attuned to the good that happened.
How often do you think about the questions you ask? Actually now that I think about it, the question I really want to ask is, How often do you ask questions bearing in mind the result you want?
Like I’ve said before questions create our reality, honestly they create the world we live in. What do I mean by this? Most of our actions and interactions are initiated by a question. Let me give you a few examples. When I woke up this morning one of my first questions to myself was do I want to exercise? (the answer is usually no, but I still ask the question) Sometimes I will then ask myself how can I motivate myself to do exercise. I then go on to ask myself a slew of other questions which will subsequently form my day.
An example of how questions initiate our interactions and subsequently create our reality is when parents ask children how their day was? The answer usually is a FINE and maybe an eye roll – not exactly the kind of interaction most parents hope for. Most parents tell me that the ensuing interaction is not very gratifying. Nevertheless parents still continue to ask the same question.
What I’m proposing is to start thinking about the outcomes you want and then formulating your question based on that. Let me give you an example. I know exercise is good for me, I usually feel good after I’ve exercised, so I would like to exercise. I’ve found that instead of asking myself do I want to exercise today, if I ask myself when am I going to exercise today, it is more likely that I will exercise. That small change in the question begets a different outcome. The same with asking your children how their day was. What do you really hope to get from that question? Do you want to bother your children (keep asking the same question), annoy yourself (again keep asking the same questions) or learn more about your children’s lives (“Which class did you find most interesting today?”), forge a closer relationship (“How was that test you studied so hard for last night?”), let them know you are interested in them (“Were you able to talk to Jane about the misunderstanding you had?”)? Bearing in mind the purpose of the question I suggest you change what you ask.
Starting today what can you do differently? Take time to think about what results you want when you ask a question and formulate your question based on that information. Do I want to know…(How was the presentation you gave?), do I want to have a laugh (What was the funniest part of your day?), do I want to know more about my child (Who did you have lunch with?) (Obviously this is all based on knowing your child and what is going on in their life). Remember the more specific and targeted your question the better the answer. The more you do this the easier it will become.
How do you respond to the people in your life when they choose to share good news with you? Do you authentically share in their good fortune? Or do you change the subject and talk about something else?
There is little doubt that social support is critical to well-being. Social support is defined as having people in your life for whom you care and who care about you, it’s a mutual relationship. Truth be told the quality of your relationships defines the quality of your life. Let me clarify a very important point. When we talk about social network we aren’t talking about social media friends. We are talking about people you can count on and know they can count on you. How do you develop that supportive social network?
According to Shelly Gable one way to develop a supportive social network is to respond to those in your network active and constructively. We all know how to respond to people in the hard times, however few of us seem to know how to respond to people in the good times. And responding to someone in the good times is just as important, if not more so, than responding in the bad times. Responding active constructively in the good times builds relationships.
So what is an active constructive response? When you respond active constructively you show sincere and deep interest in the other person’s news by discovering more about the source of their good fortune. When you truly share in the other person’s joy, you magnify and enrich the positive experience. In doing so you enrich the relationship.
What does an active constructive response look like? Let’s say your son shares with you his excitement about doing well on a test. An active constructive response could be, “Wow, you must be so proud of yourself! I bet you studied really hard. How do you feel? How do you want to celebrate? Tell me what you did to get such a good grade?” The answers to these questions are fertilizer for further questions.
Starting today what can you do differently? First you can reflect upon your habitual response to others’ good news. Next you can consciously practice active constructively responding by writing down what you would say to someone when they share their good news. Finally you can actively seek out someone to practice with.
Who doesn’t want to be happy? As I’ve said before I think it is pretty safe to say most people want to be happy. What keeps them from being happy? I believe the many myths of happiness keep people from being happy.
The biggest myth of happiness is you are who you are, as in you can’t get happier. Granted some people have a sunnier disposition than others and we do have what is called a set point for happiness, however, this does not mean we can’t make ourselves happier. We might not become as jolly as our jolliest friend, nevertheless, with a little effort, we can make ourselves happier, we can move that set point.
The second biggest myth of happiness is believing when I get that raise, promotion, married, children I will be so happy. Happiness isn’t a state we can achieve, it isn’t an end product, it’s a by product. Happiness isn’t a place you can arrive to and stay permanently if you work hard enough. Happiness is a place you can go to more and more frequently, but not a place you can hope to stay permanently. The irony here is if you can accept this fact you can visit happyland more often and for longer. Extrinsic goals don’t bring us happiness.
Another myth of happiness is believing that when you become happy you only experience positive emotions. This is very far from the truth. Happiness is about experiencing the whole range of emotions equally. Granted the optimum is experiencing more positive emotions than negative, but not experiencing any negative emotions does not equate to greater happiness. Experiencing only positive emotions doesn’t bring us happiness
Another myth of happiness is believing that material goods bring happiness. Because of hedonic adaptation this notion is very far from true. We adapt easily to both the good and the bad, when we get that raise, that big house, the shinny car or whatever, truth be told we will adapt to it, the joy will wear off and we will move on to wanting the next thing. Material goods don’t bring us happiness.
Starting today what can you do differently? You can start by being more realistic about being happy. When you feel bad, instead of trying to push the bad feelings away, invite them in. I’m not suggesting to wallow in anger, self-pity, jealousy etc, etc, I’m suggesting to acknowledge the feeling, feel the feeling, it will make it easier to move on. You can remember that material goods don’t bring happiness, however, how you use those material goods does. Remember doing for others and being with others brings happiness.
Yes/no or maybe. Which is it, or is it? Thinking in terms of either/or can be very useful. Binary thinking is a great way to compress information, it allows us to respond quickly to a dangerous situation. Compressing information helps us survive. It helps us to make quick decisions. Putting our thoughts into categories helps us begin to process our thoughts, it’s an important starting point. The operative words being starting point.
When we leave our thoughts in categories we are doing ourself and others a disservice, we are failing to see the entirety of the interaction. Cognitive distortions are good examples of binary thinking, should/should not, fair/unfair. Cognitive distortions are a great example of compressing information albeit a dysfunctional form of thinking. When we think in terms of good/bad, pretty/ugly, right/wrong, my way or the highway, etc, etc we are missing the nuance of life. This type of thinking does not allow us to think flexibly and makes our lives more difficult.
Flexible thinking is important because it allows you to calibrate your response to the situation at hand by seeing all the colors of the story. This in turn allows you to choose your response as opposed to reacting. So instead of basing your response on feelings or thoughts that might not be rooted in the moment flexible thinking allows you to see all your options and choose the most appropriate response. Flexible thinking makes life better because by allowing you to respond appropriately to the situation at hand you are also enhancing your relationships. You are enhancing your relationships because you are responding from a place of current experience.
How do you become a flexible thinker? I believe the best way is begin is to be curious. Why is this the way it is, why did that person say that, what does that mean? Being curious motivates you to understand the other person’s perspective. And seeing something from someone else’s perspective is the essence of flexible thinking and empathy. Make a list of as many other alternatives as you can think of. Another way to become a flexible thinker is to practice mindfulness. Taking a moment to react will give you the opportunity to respond effectively. There is something to be said for counting to ten.
If self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish the tasks they set out to do and one of the ways to instill a sense of self-efficacy in your child is to give them the opportunity to master as many tasks as possible where does that leave all the helicopter, lawn mower and good intentioned parents out there?
I believe it leaves them standing next to their children instead of taking over for them. Let me explain. Most parents hate to see their children suffer. Whether it be a difficult task, an upsetting encounter or … you name it. The instinct is to say let me help you. But what does help mean? Is help taking over and doing what needs to be done? Or is help standing next to your child and saying, “Ok, let’s try this again” and standing next to your child while they try again and maybe again and maybe again? Remember when your child started to walk and fell down. Did you jump in and tell him to sit down, not to bother to try again or did you offer your hands so they could hold on while they tried it again.
I believe that the best way to teach your child to be self-efficacious and to have great self-esteem is to stand next to your child, to offer them your hands. What I mean by standing next to your child is being there for your child, being a resource, a kind smile, a gentle encouragement, a warm hug, but not robbing your child of their opportunities of mastery by taking over for them when they are struggling. I know most parents take over in good faith, their hearts are in a great place but the result, the message they send their child when they do this is not conducive to self-efficacy. The message they send is, “You can’t do this, I can, it’s not worth trying (no need to persist).” Standing next to your child on the other hand is saying, “I believe in you, I’m here for you and will help you if you need (not take over) and will be here until you achieve what you want and you got this.” Keep going, keep trying, it’s worth it, you can do it, I’ll be here next to you. That’s the difference between standing next to your child and taking over.
Starting today, when your child struggles, where will you choose to stand?
We all experience hardship and difficulty in life, what keeps some people upbeat and optimistic while others get down and pessimistic, is their explanatory style.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and leading authority on optimism/pessimism, a person’s explanatory style can lead to optimism or pessimism. A person’s explanatory style refers to how a person explains to themselves the causes of events. A person’s explanatory style lies along three dimensions – permanent/temporary, pervasiveness/localized and personal/external. Pessimists explain negative events as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists explain negative events as temporary, localized and external. Let’s break this down.
Permanent refers to how reversible a negative event will be. Will the negative event last forever and/or happen over and over. Or is the negative event time bound and/or be a one shot deal. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you don’t get a promotion. You say to yourself, “I’ll never get promoted” (permanent) vs “I didn’t get promoted this time, thank heavens there’s another review in a few months” (temporary). Whereas the second explanation was temporary, I will have another chance, the first explanation is permanent, I will never get promoted. You went from not getting this promotion to never getting another promotion.
Pervasiveness refers to how many areas of a person’s life the negative event will bleed into or permeate. An example of pervasiveness is when the cake you are baking doesn’t turn out you say to yourself, “I give up I just can’t cook, I’m done” vs “This was a hard recipe, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but dinner sure was good.” Do you let the failed caked take all the joy out of every part of your cooking or do you realize that the failed cake means that this one time this one cake didn’t turn out well and has nothing to do with anything else in regard to your cooking.
Personalization refers to how much blame (not responsibility, blame, there’s a difference) a person takes for the negative event. In the failed cake examples above do you say, “I can’t do anything right!” vs “That was a hard recipe, it was a very confusing recipe.” Do you blame yourself or do you realistically acknowledge how hard the recipe was.
Being aware of what you say to yourself, your explanatory style, in the face of adversity is the first step towards becoming a more optimistic person.