Let’s face the truth — we get pleasure from our habits.
Habits govern most aspects of our daily lives. They give us a sense of security.
Our internal GPS loves habits and drives us to repeat them.
Habits give us pleasure because we are emotionally and psychologically attached to certain behaviours and activities. We do and re-do and re-do. Psychology calls this positive reinforcement.
Habits, both good and bad, form society’s foundation. Civil society as we know it depends on respect for laws and customs — good manners, driving according to the rules of the road, proper disposal of trash, and public health habits like hand washing. Consumer spending based on purchase habits supports the modern economy. Democracy depends on political behaviour such as voting.
Families also depend on habits for their functioning.
Families share eating habits based on tradition, culture and environment.
We tell and re-tell stories, share jokes among ourselves, and have familiar ways of greeting one another. For years, our son greeted his father by arm wrestling — a habit leftover from adolescence when hugging was not cool.
Habits that give pleasure
Most of our habits give pleasure — at least in the short-term — because they make us feel good.
Good health habits — like regular flossing, drinking lots of water, getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating nutritious food — give feelings of well-being. Adding a glass of wine with dinner, a good laugh or two shared with a friend, or a hug from your spouse/partner upgrades the pleasure.
Certain habits — such as cutting yourself some slack instead of listening to the critical inner voice, practising gratitude, spending quality time with family members, and engaging in meditation or spiritual practices — promote good mental health.
People in intimate relationships have habits with spouses/partners that include special signals, special greetings, and mannerisms that delight, amuse, support, and entertain.
Many people get pleasure from technology habits. They enjoy hanging out on social media, checking messages, checking emails, and verifying facts/information on the internet.
Habits also bring longer term pleasure because they give structure to the days, weeks and seasons of our lives.
Routines, such as morning coffee, give predictability to each day; Saturdays and Sundays have different routines than weekdays. Weather leads us to organize our lives differently in winter than in summer. In Canada winter is the time for consuming hearty soups and spending evenings indoors while summer finds us enjoying a lighter diet and spending more time outdoors.
Some habits make us uncomfortable — others are unpleasant. Some habits are harmful and lead to addictions.
Like everybody, I have my share of bad habits. I’m uncomfortable when I keep others waiting by arriving late and I also dislike waiting for people who are late. I know that short-changing sleep is harmful to health, yet I often read late into the night when engrossed in a great novel.
Many bad habits come from childhood or from hectic career times or from parenting. These bad habits deserve evaluation. They served me well during earlier times but are now creating discomfort.
One leftover childhood habit is a natural combativeness and competitiveness that taught me how to win sibling fights. These habits lead to silly arguments when I’m passionate about a topic. I find myself trying to prove something that matters little in the grand scheme of life.
A left over career habit is the tendency to ‘supervise’ and direct. My husband occasionally reminds me that I’m not his manager or his boss when my directions become too direct!
Sometimes I find myself giving advice to my adult son just as I did during the parenting years and then stop myself as he gives me one of those ‘oh, mother’ looks!
I’m working hard to change these habits and others — like perfectionism, interrupting others in animated conversations, procrastination and intolerance for wasted time. With better self-esteem and personal security I ask myself why I hold on to these habits?
Changing habits is uncomfortable and difficult. When we give up a habit, both the body and the mind tell us that something is missing as habits are rooted deeply in the brain and in the nervous system.
But change is possible.
Research tells us that change happens most consistently when focusing on one habit at a time and consciously cultivating the new habit for 21 to 30 days until it becomes part of our lifestyle.
I’m not sure that habits that formerly brought pleasure are necessarily erased from memory. For example, although I have not smoked for more than 40 years, I still long for a cigarette when I’m playing a difficult bridge hand and I use my replacement habit — taking a slow sip of water — to re-focus.
Some habits change naturally as time passes. Something that brought pleasure in the past becomes a turn off! I used to enjoy fast food fixes like a burger with fries and a coke. Now such meals leave me feeling uncomfortable and not satisfied.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, an ever-popular business and self-help book, Stephen Covey urges us to learn self-management and to seek continuous improvement. He recommends these strategies for taking responsibility for our behaviour. Self-management includes planning, goal setting and self-development; it also includes soft skills such as meditation, keeping a journal, and exercise.
I would add self-awareness to Covey’s list. Full awareness of habits — both good and bad — allows the necessary self-management to change the habits. Self-awareness enhances retirement happiness and allows me to fully enjoy ‘good’ habits while working toward eliminating those habits that cause discomfort.