You are your habits

The study of positive psychology tells us one of the most important determinants of happiness is the degree to which we are living a life that is meaningful. We find meaning in many ways, perhaps through our relationships and career. While important, these sources of meaning lie externally to us and therefore rely on factors that are beyond our immediate control.

It is important therefore to also cultivate an internally-derived sense of meaning, which I believe lies fundamentally in our ability to live in alignment with our values. In many ways our values define who we are, and contribute to our sense of self-esteem and life satisfaction. They are therefore important.

It is not always easy to live in alignment with our values, particularly given that life presents us many potential obstacles. This post will focus on the kinds of actions I believe are important to living a meaningful life in line with our values, which I believe largely come from the habits and practices we cultivate in our daily life.

I believe we become our habits in a very real way, as much of our time is spent in habituated routines. Habits can of course be good or bad, and a central challenge with respect to habits comes from the fact that we very naturally adopt bad habits, while the cultivation of good habits can require considerable effort. The question of how we cultivate positive daily habits and practices in our daily life that align with our values becomes a question of central importance.

For me this has been a four step process: (1) reflecting on what my values are; (2) making a commitment to live a life that aligns with those values; (3) developing a plan of daily habits and practices that align with those values; (4) doing those habits repeatedly.

One of my core values for instance is to be healthy, and to cultivate a peaceful mind. This value stems from an acknowledgement of the preciousness of life – its shortness and its poignancy – as well as a desire to be a positive influence on people around me.

Clearly human flourishing is not always our default state – there are many more ways for things to go wrong in life than for them to go right, and therefore it takes effort to live a life that goes well in the ways one wants it to go well. An undertaking to be consistent in our effort therefore constitutes the commitment I believe we need to make in order to see positive change manifest in our life.

There will naturally be a number of obstacles we face in being consistent with implementing positive habits and practices in our life. This may be particularly the case given the state of our modern world, where there are powerful forces working against our ability to live in alignment with our values. There are ubiquitous distractions and temptations in life, both online and out in the world, which arguably make it more difficult now than ever to adopt and be consistent with positive habits.

It is important therefore to develop a degree of immunity to the ubiquitous distractions and temptations for our attention and resources. With this kind of immunity, we can more easily find the time to dedicate to the kind of things that are important to us. Developing this immunity again requires that we reflect on our values, which can drain these distractions and temptations of their allure. For instance, if we value meaning in our life, we will tend not to equate material possessions or instant gratification with our happiness and wellbeing.

This reflection on our values still might not be enough though – humans act against their own self-interests all the time as the allure of these distractions and temptations can come upon us suddenly and cause us to act on an impulse. This is where I have found mindfulness an essential additional tool to helps build consistency with positive such changes.

When we are mindful, we can better respond to the onset of such distractions and temptations with awareness and in doing so, prevent ourselves from reacting to them and acting out their demands. Over time, this habit of mind slowly begins to loosen the grip of these distractions and temptations on us, opening up a realm of psychological flexibility that is essential to living an examined life.

This state of mindfulness doesn’t come naturally to us and in my experience, requires a meditation practice. The function of a meditation practice in this context is the cultivation of greater insight into our internal states, and a ‘meta’ quality of mind – an observation quality where we can see thoughts, feelings and emotions arise without reacting to them. We can therefore be with this urge to act on accordance with whatever distraction or temptation we’re exposed to without acting on that urge.

I am aware that there is of a slight bug in my logic here. I am suggesting the need to be mindful as a means of helping to cultivate daily habits and practices I believe are necessary to live in a way that aligns with our values. The cultivation of this kind of mindfulness though may itself require the development of a mediation habit. For this reason, developing a meditation habit might be the most fundamental ingredient to getting our broader habit project off the ground.

This was certainly the case for me. Initially, developing a meditation habit relied on three steps (which can be generalised by replacing ‘meditation’ with ‘x’); (1) recognise the importance of meditation as a means of living the kind of life I want to live; and (2) seeking out resources to help develop a meditation habit; and (3) setting aside time each day for meditation. I have already outlined above how I personally developed an appreciation for (1) and in the early days of my meditation practice (i.e. in 2014 & 2015), it really helped me take time to meditate even when I didn’t feel like it.

Steps 2 for me required listening to podcasts, reading books and tapping into other resources that are available online. I have found certain people particularly helpful in this regard including Joseph Goldstein and Sam Harris.

And for step 3, I would emphasise the importance of meditating at the same time each day which for me, was initially early in the morning as soon as I wake up. This worked best for me as it was the only time when I consistently have other activities planned.

Once we can developing enough mindfulness of our internal states, we will be better positioned to implement all kinds of positive changes we may want to make in our lives. While this is not restricted to habits and practices, this has personally been my focus. In addition to a daily meditation habit, this has included a daily yoga practice, going for a ~5km run a few times per week, doing push-ups each day, keeping my apartment clean and more recently, writing regularly.

These are the daily practices and habits that I’ve decided can fit within my life and will help me live the healthy and happy life I desire. Everyone’s daily habits and practices will of course be different, and thinking about which ones are important is itself an important part of the process I have outlined above.

Implementing this (or some variation of the) process have outlined above won’t always happen smoothly – sometimes the effort required to do our habits will be too much for us, or sometimes we will simply forget. At times when our habits seem difficult to implement, all we need to do is to once again reflect on our core values and why such habits are important, and simply begin again.

For further reading on habits, by far the best book I have read on this topic is Atomic Habits by James Clear.

2 thoughts on “You are your habits

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