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.
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.
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.
In all of my years working with parents I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want their child to be happy and have good self-esteem. What I find curious about this is how parents go about making it happen. I believe most people have many misconceptions about what happiness is and isn’t and how to achieve it. Needless to say self-esteem is an even bigger mystery.
Self-esteem is defined as the regard a person has for themselves. It’s an overall feeling of one’s self-worth. Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task, in their ability to get things done. Needless to say we don’t expect people to believe they are self-efficacious across all domains. However, the more domains in which a person feels self-efficacious, the more positive an outcome. The theory of self-efficacy was originally proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970’s. Self-efficacy predicts self-esteem. I believe if you want your child to have good self-esteem one way to do this is by fostering self-efficacy.
How does self-efficacy relate to self-esteem? Well think about it, if you know or feel pretty confident that you can get things done, I would say it’s pretty safe to say you are going to have high regard for yourself. When you don’t question your ability, when you are open to trying even if you could fail, you most likely will experience high self-esteem.
How do you instill a sense of self-efficacy in your children? If self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to achieve a task then it would seem to make sense that the best way to instill a sense of self-efficacy would be to put a child in as many situations of mastery as possible. And… when a child fails, to send the message that failure is no excuse for giving up. When a child fails it’s an opportunity to say, “Great, what did you learn and what will you do differently next time?” Modeling self-efficacy is also a good way to instill self-efficacy. When a child observes their primary caregivers successfully completing tasks the child tends to learn to believe they too can master the challenges they face.
The questions we ask create the world we live in. The questions we ask determine our actions. Not only do questions determine our actions, they also determine our interactions.
The answer we give to the questions we ask pave the road we walk on. They pave the road we walk on by determining where we place our focus. Most people tend not to give too much thought to their questions. However, if questions create the world we live in, it might be a good idea to pose the type of question that creates the type of world we’d like to inhabit. And the thing about questions is we ask a lot of them, all day long.
For example you get up in the morning and ask yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” This question determines your subsequent behavior, the road you shall walk down. The answer you give to this question can take you in many directions and create a variety of outcomes, it can create all kinds of worlds. If you answer, “Well I’ll just have something quick,” you might grab the cold pizza left over from last night. If you answer, “I’d really like to have something healthy and nutritious,” you might consider whipping up a bowl of oatmeal. The answer to your original question plants the first paver on the road to a type of life. So maybe, instead of asking yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” consider changing the question by asking yourself, “What is the healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” If you want to loose weight. Or if you are in a hurry but still want to eat healthy, “What’s the quickest, healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” Remember the questions you ask create the world you live in.
Questions also determine our interactions. Your child/spouse/roommate comes home from school/work and you ask, “How was your day?” The answer you get will determine the ensuing interaction. Do you get a grunt, a roll of the eyes, a “Fine!” or a long complaint of what went wrong? So maybe instead of asking “How was your day?” How about changing up your question and asking the kind of question that will create the kind of world you’d like to live in? If you want a pleasant light interaction, maybe “What was the best part of your day?” would be better. If you want an in depth conversation, maybe “What was the most interesting part of your day?” would be better.
Remember, most people don’t pay too much attention to the questions they ask. Also remember, however, that questions create the world we live in. What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of questions do you need to ask to have that world? Starting today begin to ask the kinds of questions that create the kind of world you want to inhabit.
By some accounts we spend half of our awake time talking to ourselves. This self-talk can be very helpful – when we practice a speech, work out a problem or memorize something, our self-talk is very valuable. Our self-talk becomes less valuable, even detrimental when it turns negative, when it becomes rumination – anxiety ridden images of the future or a compulsive rehashing of an incident, that doesn’t serve our best interest. When this type of self-talk takes over, when we become so wrapped up in our thoughts we lose perspective and begin to believe our thoughts are universal truths and we start to feel bad, it’s a sign we need to put some distance between our thoughts and our behavior.
Psychological distancing gives us the ability to see things from a different perspective. It gives us the ability to be in the moment, be flexible and see our thoughts for what they are – beliefs we make real. Psychological distancing is the ability to see our thoughts as constructs of reality as opposed to reality itself. It’s the ability to distinguish between feeling bad and being bad, for example. Let’s say you bombed a presentation and you feel bad about it. When you are able to distance yourself from your thoughts you are able to say to yourself, “I feel badly about doing so poorly on that presentation, next time I will prepare more” you give yourself some time to feel bad and you are able to move on. The ability to place distance between your thoughts and your actions, to be able to see your thoughts for what they are, makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.
How do you get psychological distance? There are several ways, but first you must hear what you are saying to yourself. Once you can hear your self-talk you can say your name. Shifting from the first person, I, to the third person, Jane, automatically puts distance between you and your thoughts. It might sound awkward but it is a very quick and simple way to put distance. Another way is to ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend about this situation?” If a friend did poorly giving a presentation would you tell them to feel badly or would you encourage them to put it into perspective? These are just a few of the many ways there are to gain psychological distance and to become more resilient.
Awareness of our self-talk is a key resilience skill. Being aware of what we are telling ourselves when we experience difficulty offers us the opportunity to take the unproductive, unrealistic, inaccurate thoughts that are causing us to feel and behave in self-defeating ways and challenge them. Like someone standing up to a bully, when we challenge our thoughts that are destructive, we can stop the damage they inflict on our well-being and happiness.
Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves. If we aren’t aware of what we are saying to ourselves, it’s hard to change our thoughts. When this happens, when we can’t hear our self-talk, we can at least try to be aware of the cognitive distortions we are using. While cognitive distortions can be automatic, we can usually listen for certain words we are using – shoulds, terrible, always, never, etc, which signal a cognitive distortion. Once we notice these words we can begin to challenge the thoughts which encase these distortions.
There are many ways to challenge cognitive distortions, the goal of challenging our cognitive distortions is to find a more realistic, balanced way to explain to ourselves why something happened. It’s like being the judge of your own thoughts – are these thoughts facts or opinions. If our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real then they are opinions not facts, therefore we can replace one belief for another one. We can look for a more accurate, balanced belief to replace it with. When we challenge our cognitive distortions we are making our thinking more accurate. When we think more accurately we tend to feel less bad. Please note – we are not going for thinking positively, we are going for thinking more accurately and feeling less bad. This is a very important distinction, the objective is a more balanced and helpful way of thinking. It’s important to emphasize that we will not eliminate all difficult emotions when we challenge our cognitive distortions, that’s not what well-being is about.
Again, what we are going for when we challenge our thoughts is accurate, realistic thinking, the kind of thinking that is in your own best interest. We are NOT looking to eliminate negative feelings. Knowing how to cope with the whole spectrum of feelings is part of being resilient. We are looking to eliminate inaccurate, unrealistic negative feelings.
Remember, resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and make the best happen. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it.
During difficult times I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, when social support is most elusive, it can be what we most crave. Social support comes in many forms. Remember social support is not defined by the quantity of people in our lives nor the physical presence of the person. Social support is defined by the quality of our relationships. You don’t have to be face to face with a person to have a quality relationship. And research is really clear, social support is correlated to well-being. In case you doubt the importance of social support this is a video on a very well known longitudinal study called the Harvard Study, it explains the importance of social support.
In case you still continue to doubt the importance of social support, this is a wonderful podcast (done at the beginning of the pandemic) on the research on social support and how to beat the sense of loneliness during these times. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Yale professor. In 2018 she offered Yale’s most popular class entitled Psychology and the Good Life.
So, in an effort to make the best happen, to help yourself be more resilient, difficult times can be an opportunity to build community, reach out to people. Call people, skype, zoom, facetime, conference call whatever you choose but reach out. Keep in contact. Be creative about reaching out and being in contact. And be flexible about your expectations.