“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
Discoveries of neuroscience shine light on a hidden, but very real force that shapes our lives for better or for worse. This force is neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. In essence, brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change itself in response to life events both external and internal. And this is where our habits come in. The often used phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together” contains caution: our habits change our brains for better or for worse. And that means that we are likely to become wired for happiness or its opposite as a result of repeating certain actions over and over even if a little voice inside us tells us we should change.
Okay, you might say. But I don’t have any bad habits: no excessive drinking, gambling or trolling dating sites for hook- ups. So, let’s define “habit”. According to Webster Dictionary it is “a way of acting fixed through repetition” (those neurons firing together and wiring together!). Also, habit implies doing things automatically or even compulsively without conscious awareness. It can mean mental activities (like fantasizing about killing your rival) and actually doing the deed.
Taking a Look at Our Habits
Do you spend a lot of time worrying about what might or might not happen? Do you lie awake at night thinking about all the tasks that await you? Do you catch yourself having arguments with people who are not even there? Or re-playing in your mind a conversation where you could have said all kinds of brilliant things, but did not? All of the above mental activities are referred to as “rumination” – a habit linked to depression, anxiety and a general tendency to live in your head instead of connecting with the world and the people around you. No chance of being wired for happiness here.
Another domain of habits involves our usual ways of responding to stressful situations. When you are angry, do you blow up (reassuring yourself that he had it coming)? When hurt or disappointed do you shut down? When overwhelmed do you space out, numb out or go shopping? When an important project calls for extra work at home do you watch Netflix instead? When feeling down, do you avoid contact with others? Do you keep doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result? If you answered Yes, you are probably familiar with that nagging inner voice which is so good at pointing out the error of your ways and making you feel like there’s something seriously wrong with you. And this just makes you want to watch more Netflix.
So, forget the inner critic and let’s get back to neuroscience. There is nothing wrong with the emotions that fuel your habits. Anger, fear, sadness, hurt, overwhelm are there for a good reason – they let us know that something is not working and action needs to be taken. But how we express and act on these emotions can make a difference between finding a happy resolution or creating more heartache and chaos.
So how do we break those habits that don’t serve us well?
The Steps to Breaking Unhelpful Habits
The First Step is to notice they are there. As the Gandhi quote urges us : watch your thoughts, your words, your actions, your habits. Not in a critical way but with compassion and curiosity. This act of non-judgmental watching of your moment-to-moment experience becomes a powerful new habit – the habit of mindfulness. This is where we start dismantling the faulty wiring and our brains start to become re-wired for happiness. The new habit of mindfulness creates some space, quite literally some breathing room, around the difficult emotion so you can take:
The Second Step which is to pause and review your options. You might end up having friendly dialogues with yourself that go something like this:
Your reactive self: I’m not getting up. What’s the point? I won’t be able to... (fill in the blanks) no matter how hard I try
Your mindful self: Of course, I don’t feel like getting up. I was up half the night worrying about.. (fill in the blanks). And now I have fog on my brain and my body feels like it’s made of cement. It makes sense that all I want to do now is to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. This is certainly an option. I will feel better if I get some sleep. But how will it help the situation that kept me up half the night? If I don’t push the snooze button, what other options are there for me this morning?
Your reactive self: I’m not getting up. I feel sick.
Your mindful self: Yes, that headache feels really awful. I think I’ll take some Tylenol and reset the alarm for another hour. Then I’ll see how I feel.
The habit of paying attention, without judgment to what’s going on in our mind, body and heart opens up new possibilities and creates more options. And most importantly, it brings about the ability to choose our response instead of reacting. When we choose actions that are aligned with our values, dreams and aspirations we move in the direction of creating a life we want.
Habitual reactions come from murky places where the light of awareness does not shine. They are usually powered by fear and their goal is survival. The menu of options is limited: fight, flight, freeze or appease. No disrespect meant here - these reactions can save us in all kinds of dangerous situations. Our survival system is an evolutionary wonder and we need it; but when it becomes the main operating system for handling relationships, careers or finances, we’re in trouble.
Summary: Our Brains Can Be Wired for Happiness (Or It’s Opposite). So, Let’s Get Going on Changing Those Habits
Okay, let's do a quick review and sum up how to change bad habits with a new habit of mindfulness and tap into the brain’s capacity to get wired for happiness:
- Watch your habits of thinking and behaving with curiosity and compassion. You will get to know yourself better and start getting glimpses of those hidden fears that make you rush into actions you later regret.
- Make it a new habit to pay friendly attention to your experience. Tune in to yourself whenever you start picking up some disturbance or your actions seem less than wise.
- By calmly watching your own storms, you bring into being a strong, calm and compassionate internal presence which mindfulness experts refer to as your Wise Mind, Your Observing Self or just simply Presence.
- Once the emotional storms calm down and you can see more clearly, your Wise Mind will help you choose actions that resonate with your deepest aspirations.
- Repeat these steps and get wired for happiness.
Easier said than done? Getting spooked when those hidden fears start showing up? Then, there is no need to go it alone. Find a guide, a coach or a therapist familiar with mindfulness as a habit-busting tool. You could call me. I am part of that tribe.