Since starting my training in Positive Psychology, I’ve been bombarded with all sorts of helpful suggestions about what I ought to do to make myself happier. “Make a daily list of five things you’re grateful for,” or “meditate every day,” or “exercise regularly,” or “clean your closets.” All good ideas, and I’m sure if I did them all I’d be a happier person. But as soon as someone else tells me what to do, I find myself resisting it. I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve noticed that when I try to tell other people what to do to be happier, they don’t follow my instructions, either.
I guess I’ve always been suspicious of adopting other people’s rituals, which remind me of religion, which reminds me of manipulation. And I’m equally suspicious of the self-help gurus and celebrities that promise a quick fix of all my problems if I’ll just follow their five steps. It all feels fake and simplistic to me.
Still, as I’ve delved deeper into the scientific studies of how people actually make lasting change, I’ve become convinced by the experts’ view that the best way to change old habits or create new ones is by establishing new rituals. According to psychologists and neuroscientists, by practicing something new over and over, we create new neuropathways that eventually turn that new behavior into a pattern — a new habit. At that point, it takes much less energy (what we often refer to as “willpower”) to keep doing it.
It turns out human beings have very limited amounts of willpower. It’s why most people give up pretty quickly on New Year’s resolutions and other promises to change. The psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied this extensively, and found that creating new habits is far more effective than attempting to muster enough willpower each day to do something new. (His findings are explained in an excellent book he co-authored with journalist John Tierney called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)
So while I’ve resisted adopting other people’s rituals, I realized recently during a week-long Positive Psychology training immersion that to get the benefits, I don’t have to follow someone else’s practice; I can create my own. In fact, I’m much more likely to adopt a new habit if it’s something I came up with that suits my schedule and temperament than something someone else devised to suit theirs. In other words, I don’t have to clean my closets or make daily gratitude lists or write in a journal if I don’t want to. But if there’s something I do want to change – whether it’s developing certain qualities or dropping bad habits – I’m far more likely to be successful if I establish a daily practice that moves me in that direction. And I can use the wealth of evidence about the effectiveness of rituals to create a ritual that feels not like I’m fulfilling some external obligation imposed upon me, but one that I’ve chosen and created to help me pursue my own goals.
It may sound exhausting to have to do something new every day. (Another reason I’ve generally resisted it.) But making one decision in advance to do something and making it part of your daily routine drastically reduces the amount of mental energy involved. It would take far more willpower to re-convince yourself of the value of a new practice and to have to re-commit yourself each day to doing it.
And the truth is, we’re always practicing something. If we’re not consciously deciding what it is we want to practice, then we’re usually letting old habits decide for us. And often those aren’t taking us where we want to go.
Willpower, then, is not something that requires heroic strength. It’s simply a choice to use our awareness to make conscious choices. Creating a new ritual doesn’t have to demand Herculean effort. As Anthony Trollope, the prolific writer who never wrote more than three hours a day said: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” A new ritual can take all of five minutes to complete, depending on what it is and how you want to implement it. But it can make a big difference.
Don’t try to change too much at once, though. People who try to take on too many new behaviors at once often end up abandoning them all. Studies show that people who implement small changes, one or two at a time, are more likely to sustain them. Committing to them in the presence of someone else (such as a friend, spouse, coach, etc.), to whom you’ll feel accountable, also greatly improves your chances for success.
The biggest effort required is the decision to create and practice the new ritual itself. To overcome your inner skeptic’s resistance, make it your own.