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Can habits make us happy?

Most of us, at some point, have struggled to form a new habit or, for that matter, break an old one.

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Whether reducing sugar intake, getting to bed earlier, or fitting exercise into our daily routine, behavior change is no easy pursuit. This is a well-documented challenge dating back to Aristotle who wrote about the influence habits have on our lives, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle was onto something; habits have the ability to shape our lives in powerful ways. In essence, our lives take shape around the series of habits we form over the course of our lifetime. These habits can support us in leading a life of fulfillment, or do just the opposite. Habits are amazing, they allow us to crawl out of bed and into the shower while still half asleep, brush our teeth, finish our morning routine and get out the door in time for work.  These tasks are completed with very little mental effort because they have been repeated often enough to become automatic. The automatic nature developed for mundane tasks is important as it frees up brain functioning for complex problems like a new project at work or a challenging conversation with your partner. Forming a new habit is a marathon, not a sprint, requiring that behaviors be repeated frequently enough to become automatic. When we learn a new task the prefrontal cortex in our brains is activated. This is the region responsible for planning complex behavior, decision-making and regulating social behavior, all of which are important when practicing a new behavior. Multiple repetitions are a crucial step in the process of behaviors becoming automatic. Habit formation can also be seen in the brain as the processing shifts from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia, a region important for the consolidation of new patterns of behavior.

What can we do to support this challenging but important process of habit formation? Scientists suggest focusing on these three main areas:

  1. Initiating a new behavior

Let’s say you want to make meditation part of your daily routine. Begin by defining your goals; meaningful goals are specific, measurable and achievable. Think about your motivation for learning to meditate and about how your practice could benefit those around you in addition to yourself. Next, create a plan for integrating meditation into your daily life.  Specify when and where the behavior will take place and formulate “if…” “then…” plans.  These are strategies that specify how to overcome daily obstacles. For example, “If I don’t have time to meditate in the morning…then I will meditate during my lunch break.” Lastly, remember to relate to yourself with gentle kindness, especially when you miss a day, which will inevitably happen. Relating to setbacks with compassion will encourage you to continue with the practice.

  1. Repetition

In order for a habit to form, consistent repetition of the behavior in the same context is important. Researchers suggest that there is great variation in the amount of time required to form a habit depending on individual differences and the type of behavior involved however, on average, a continued repetition of 66 days in the same context is needed for a new habit to emerge. When we first begin a new behavior we tend to experience a burst of motivation that makes it easy to continue. Like running a marathon, our energy levels start out high. As this initial burst of motivation fades, researchers suggest that repetition may be supported through self-tracking. For example, noticing that when you first began meditating, 10 minutes may have seemed daunting, but now feels comfortable. Reviewing your goals and intentions for meditating can also increase motivation helping you continue and experience the long-term benefits of the practice.

  1. Supporting automaticity

Consistency and cues are key to habit formation. Researchers suggest that selecting an existing cue and consistently performing a new behavior in response to that cue can enhance automaticity. If your aim is to practice meditation daily, start by choosing an existing habit you do each day, such as brushing your teeth in the morning, and match the desired new behavior (meditation) to that cue. Once meditation has become habitual, far more flexibility can be introduced. Next time you set out to form a new habit, whether it’s meditation or another endeavor, consider these recommendations and you might have a new habit in no time at all.

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