Knowing what is needed to create optimal health and wellbeing is one thing but actually forming the habits of regularly doing what you need to do to thrive is an entirely different skillset. This article is going to take a look at the science of habit formation with the goals of helping you to gain mastery over the tools to be happier by implementing strong habits of mental health.
Habits can be changed if you understand how they work. When you combine the science of habit formation with positive psychology interventions and practices you get:
- more happiness
- more positive emotion
- more wellbeing
- less rumination
- less negative emotion
Habit formation is a function of neurology. It happens in the brain and is reflected through all the systems of your body. In science the patterns of habit look like this:
In yoga traditions dating back thousands of years, we see the same pattern with different words:
Another way of thinking of this is:
Any time you want to change a habit the key is to replace an old belief with a new one. This happens right before the action/karma/routine phase.
One way to do this is through willpower. Contrary to what many people believe, willpower is not an asset but a learnable skill. It’s true that it can feel depleted over the course of the day. This can be largely due to fatigue, hunger, thirst or even limiting beliefs about yourself and your ability to resist temptation.
When I think about forming habits I like to draw on advice from the experts. These strategies are super helpful and there are lots to choose from:
- Pairing. Attache something you want to do to something you already do. Keep the vitamins you always forget beside your toothbrush. Allow yourself to binge-watch Netflix when you are on the treadmill.
- Reward. The classic star chart. Keep a chart. When you have 30 gold stars get a reward. Ensure the reward aligns with your goal (ie Don’t reward 30 days of running with an ice cream, instead choose a reword of new running pants or a fitbit)
- Streak. This refers to making a chain of days in a row. If you use Insight Timer to time your meditations it will show you your number of uninterrupted days. When you have 99 in a row it’s motivating to not have to start over.
- Unpairing. Sometimes you will only exhibit an undesired behavior in a certain context. For example may people only smoke when they are drinking. If you decide that you can do one or the other but not both together you have successfully unpaired the habit.
- Accountability. Get help. Find some friends who will help keep you accountable. When my husband decided he wanted to work out every day, I would text him a photo of me at the gym, in yoga, or hiking. This took advantage of his competitive nature and got him hooked so he could respond to my texts with one of his own.
- Stick. Sometimes the carrot just doesn’t work If rewards aren’t your thing try a crazy punishment. If you are a republican pledge to donate $500 to the democrats if you don’t stick to your diet. This negative reinforcement tied to how you define yourself can be very successful!
Changing habits begins with a belief in the possibility of change. If you need more motivation to get started, try these great books.