The Simple Psychology of Habits

We all have some kind of habit or another, so to say if you’re a human being alive on planet Earth, chances are that you’ve got some habit or another. 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. Mark Twain once very famously said, “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 anyway? 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?

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.

There’s no work to do in generating such habits, because the habit does so by 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.

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, and 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.

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.

(David, 2014)

Priyanka Banik

Priyanka Banik

Business Development Executive

IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute


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