Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

23 MARCH, 2015

Better than Before: A Psychological Field Guide to Harnessing the Transformative Power of Habit

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How to lay a steadfast foundation for “the invisible architecture of daily life.”

“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil… Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James wrote in his seminal 1887 treatise on habit, the bundle of behavior he called the “enormous fly-wheel of society.” In the century since, our civilizational love affair with habit has only intensified — we’ve become besotted with the daily routines of luminaries and transfixed by the psychology of the perfect daily routine, as if replicating the way successful people structure their time would somehow sprinkle the pixie dust of success over our own lives. But as much as we lust after these shiny routines and beneficial behaviors, we still have an enormously hard time changing our habits. And yet, as Mary Oliver memorably wrote, “The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us.”

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (public library), Gretchen Rubin picks up where James left off, integrating a wealth of insight from psychology, sociology, and anthropology in an illuminating field guide to harnessing the transformative power of habit in modern life. The idea for this book came from a recurring observation Rubin made in the aftermath of her last, the indispensable The Happiness Project — readers kept telling her about a “before and after” pattern in their conquest of happiness, wherein the formation of a particular habit became a major turning point. So she set out to explore the deeper mysteries of these obvious turning points — why we have a hard time forming even habits we enjoy, what separates people who are able to adopt or drop habits overnight from those who aren’t, how we rationalize our willful blindness to the consequences of our habits, and more.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Rubin, a self-described “kind of street scientist,” writes:

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.

The most valuable aspect of habit, Rubin suggests, is its capacity to become an automated conservation mechanism for self-control, that enormously taxing exertion of our willpower:

Self-control is a crucial aspect of our lives. People with better self-control (or self-regulation, self-discipline, or willpower) are happier and healthier. They’re more altruistic; they have stronger relationships and more career success; they manage stress and conflict better; they live longer; they steer clear of bad habits. Self-control allows us to keep our commitments to ourselves. Yet one study suggests that when we try to use self-control to resist temptation, we succeed only about half the time, and indeed, in a large international survey, when people were asked to identify their failings, a top choice was lack of self-control.

[…]

And that’s why habits matter so much. With habits, we conserve our self-control.

Although the commonly agreed upon definition of habit includes several attributes of the behavior — it is recurrent, cued by a specific context, often performed unconsciously, acquired through repetition — Rubin argues that the true root of habit is decision-making or, rather, the lack thereof. A habit alleviates the cognitive load of having to choose one course of action over another and, in doing so, relieves our exertion of willpower:

Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.

[…]

When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.

Because the application of self-control itself stresses our cognitive resources, a solid infrastructure of habit matters all the more when we’re under stress:

When we’re worried or overtaxed, a habit comforts us. Research suggests that people feel more in control and less anxious when engaged in habit behavior… When we’re anxious or tired, we fall back on our habits, whether bad or good… For this reason, it’s all the more important to try to shape habits mindfully, so that when we fall back on them at times of stress, we’re following activities that make our situation better, not worse.

And yet there is a fine line between alleviating the cognitive load of decision-making and succumbing to a mindless trance of existence that carries us through life. (I have written about this previously in contemplating the crucial equipoise of routine and ritual.) Touching on the strange psychology of our warped time-perception, Rubin readily acknowledges this:

Habits speed time, because when every day is the same, experience shortens and blurs; by contrast, time slows down when habits are interrupted, when the brain must process new information.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Thoreau on what it means to be truly awake and Annie Dillard’s famous proclamation that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Rubin adds:

Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own existence.

For good and bad, habits are the invisible architecture of daily life.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers,' a visual ode to the art of presence. Click image for more.

Indeed, this is Rubin’s most vital point — while habits require no decision-making in their application, with their formation we decide our destiny; we are, as James wrote, “spinning our fates” whenever we set a new habit into motion or screech an old one to a halt. In addressing these “twin riddles of how to change ourselves and how to change our habits,” Rubin reflects on her own life:

Habit is a good servant but a bad master. Although I wanted the benefits that habits offer, I didn’t want to become a bureaucrat of my own life, trapped in paperwork of my own making.

Instead, she set out to understand how we can cultivate only those habits that make us “feel freer and stronger.” She outlines the sequential interplay of conscious and unconscious behaviors at the root of fruitful habit-formation:

When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then — and this is the best part — we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits.

That’s the promise of habit.

To be sure, an over-reliance on habit puts us at risk of hitting the “OK plateau” of performance and personal growth, but Rubin makes room for the necessary conscious counterpoint to behavioral cruise control:

For a happy life, it’s important to cultivate an atmosphere of growth — the sense that we’re learning new things, getting stronger, forging new relationships, making things better, helping other people. Habits have a tremendous role to play in creating an atmosphere of growth, because they help us make consistent, reliable progress… By mindfully choosing our habits, we harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth.

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Rubin goes on to identify several key psychological archetypes that determine our relationship with habit, the most fascinating of which deals with how we handle the two types of expectations in life — outer (such as our work obligations and the law) and inner (such as our moral values and personal commitments). She identifies four distinct groups into which everyone falls:

  • Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
  • Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified.
  • Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Arguably the most delicate balance of inner and outer expectations takes place in intimate relationships, where we constantly tussle with the polarizing pull of retaining our individual habits, which help us maintain our sense of identity, and negotiating shared habits, which bring us closer together into coupledom. In a sentiment that calls to mind a lament from young Susan Sontag’s diary regarding her unhappy marriage — “In marriage, I have suffered a certain loss of personality,” she wrote on Valentine’s Day in 1957 — Rubin cautions:

Changing a habit is much more challenging if that new habit means altering or losing an aspect of ourselves.

But this relationship between habit and identity is largely a matter of the same inner storytelling on which our sanity relies. Rubin writes:

Research shows that we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say, and the way we describe ourselves influences our view of our identity, and from there, our habits. If I say, “I’m lazy,” “I can’t resist a sale,” “I’ll try anything once,” “I never start work until the last minute,” or “I’m lucky,” those ideas become part of my identity, which in turn influences my actions.

[…]

In one study, one group of registered voters was asked, “How important is it to you to vote?” while another group was asked “How important is it to you to be a voter?” The second group was more likely to vote in the next election, because voting had been cast as an expression of identity — “This is the kind of person I am” — not just a task to be done.

[…]

Identity can help us live up to our own values: “I’m not someone who wastes time at work,” “I’m no shirker,” “If I say I’ll show up, I show up.”

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

In the remainder of Better Than Before, Rubin goes on to explore what we can do to break out of the limiting identities we habitually lock into, why the habit-identity pipeline flows in two directions in interpersonal relationships, and how we can begin to lay the foundation of fruitful habits. Complement it with Mary Oliver on habit and the cognitive science of the ideal daily routine.

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23 MARCH, 2015

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Animated: History’s Greatest Parable Exploring the Nature of Reality

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“Life is like being chained up in a cave forced to watch shadows flitting across a stone wall.”

“Reality,” wrote Philip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And yet how are we to be sure that what we observe actually is? After all, so much of what we experience as reality is the product of our remarkably flawed perception.

Some 2,400 years earlier, Plato explored this very question in his famous Allegory of the Cave — perhaps history’s most masterful figurative inquiry into the meaning of life and the nature of reality — found in Book VII of his Republic (free download; public library).

From my friends at TED-Ed — who have previously given us wonderful animated distillations of why we love repetition in music, how to detect lying, why bees build perfect hexagons, and how melancholy enhances our creativity — comes this elegant synthesis of Plato’s famous parable, its enduring wisdom, and how it illuminates some of the most fundamental questions about the human experience, from the origin of knowledge to the essence of reality itself.

Most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance, but hostile to anyone who points it out.

Complement with Alan Watts on what reality is and Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on how our minds mislead us.

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20 MARCH, 2015

Thoreau on What It Really Means to Be Awake

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“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

“The secret of success is… to be fully awake to everything about you,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote in his beautiful 1926 letter of advice to his teenage son. But how does one become fully awake to the world, especially in our world, through which we increasingly sleepwalk on autopilot, in a trance of productivity? (How awake are we, really, when we’ve stopped bowling over in awe at the everyday miracle of clouds? Or the unexpected glory of wildflowers on the city sidewalk?) Wakefulness — that embodied attentiveness to life as it lives itself through us — seems as mysterious as our nocturnal escape into dreams, and often more elusive.

That’s what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explores in a beautiful passage from Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (public library) — another timeless treasure from the same Penguin Great Ideas series that gave us Seneca’s indispensable The Shortness of Life.

Thoreau — a man of great and enduring wisdom on subjects like the spiritual rewards of walking, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the best definition of success — extols the gift of the awake imagination:

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the wakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance fills the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit and prove itself to be good, no less than the light.

In a sentiment he’d come to revisit some decades later in his journal, where he contemplated the myth of productivity and the true meaning of labor, Thoreau adds:

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For is a spectacular read in its totality, as is Thoreau’s larger treatiseWalden and Civil Disobedience, from which it is distilled. Complement it with Mary Oliver on how to be fully alive.

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17 MARCH, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers: An Illustrated Ode to Presence and the Everyday Art of Noticing in a Culture of Productivity and Distraction

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A gentle wordless celebration of the true material of aliveness.

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her magnificent defense of living with presence. But in our age of productivity, we spend our days running away from boredom, never mind its creative and spiritual benefits, and toward maximum efficiency. Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives. And yet, as we grow increasingly disillusioned with the notion of “work/life balance,” something in our modern souls is aching for the resuscitation of this dying capacity for presence. That capacity is especially essential in parenting, where the cultural trope of the device-distracted parent is an increasingly disquieting pandemic.

Half a century after Ruth Krauss wrote, and Maurice Sendak illustrated, one of the loveliest lines in the history of children’s books — “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” — poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith team up on a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

Sidewalk Flowers (public library) tells the wordless story of a little girl on her way home with her device-distracted father, a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood walking through the urban forest. Along the way, she collects wildflowers and leaves them as silent gifts for her fellow participants in this pulsating mystery we call life — the homeless man sleeping on a park bench, the sparrow having completed its earthly hours, the neighbor’s dog and, finally, her mother’s and brothers’ hair.

The flowers become at once an act of noticing and a gift of being noticed, a sacred bestowing of attention with which the child beckons her father’s absentee mind back to mindful presence.

In the final scene, the little girl tucks a wildflower behind her ear, in the same gesture with which her father holds his device, and looks up to the sky — a subtle, lyrical reminder that we each have a choice in what to hold to our ear and our mind’s eye: a flower or a phone.

Sidewalk Flowers, which is immeasurably wonderful in its analog totality, comes from Canadian independent children’s-book publisher Groundwood Books — creators of the intelligent and imaginative Once Upon a Northern Night, What There Is Before There Is Anything There, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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