Don’t Tell Me What To Do

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.

 

 

Skip the New Year’s Resolution

karma ethics.tree buddhist-network comNew Year’s resolutions seem to me like a recipe for disaster. Another commitment you make to yourself that you inevitably end up breaking. I’m going to exercise every day, or lose weight, or cut out alcohol, or always be nice to my family, or whatever. Then you slip up, and bam – you feel like shit again. The resolution goes out the window.

But I like the idea of living deliberately – in fact, I think it’s crucial to a happy and fulfilled and meaningful life. Being conscious of our actions and making deliberate choices seem like basic building-blocks for that. So how to reconcile?

To me, setting an “intention” rather than making a “resolution” seems a bit more promising. An intention is something you want, plan and hope to do, but when you slip, as you inevitably will, you just dust yourself off and get back on the path you’ve chosen. I know, they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that seems to me more using the term “intention” as a cheap band-aid covering up a deep and massive delusion that you’re not dealing with. A true intention is something you set for yourself, because it’s something you truly and deeply want, and you use it as a compass to move forward. Sometimes you get lost and veer from the path, perhaps caught up by some shiny delusive object you encounter in the woods along the way. But the compass helps you eventually find your way back and steer your course again.

I think one key to living by “intention” without getting discouraged when we screw up is just acknowledging that we’re human, and change is difficult. I’ve been reading a terrific book by Stephen Cope, a yoga teacher and psychotherapist who writes about the intersection of Western psychology and the Eastern philosophy of yoga. (I also participated in a weekend workshop with him at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires after Christmas.) In The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living, Cope explains this phenomenon as being part of what yogis call karma.

This isn’t the sort of oversimplified notion of karma we tend to hear about as determining your life because of something you did in your prior life as a dog or the idea that people are suffering through a vicious war or in some horrible refugee camp as just desert for something bad they did in their past lives. This is a much more subtle and, to me, convincing notion of karma that’s also backed up by Western psychology and contemporary neuroscience. It’s simply the idea that our actions and reactions to circumstances create patterns in our minds, and the longer those patterns continue, the more deeply they become embedded in our unconscious and the harder they are to change.

A child might react to abuse by withdrawing, for example, and withdrawal from other people at the first sight of conflict might become her unconscious pattern. For someone else addiction results – alcohol, drugs, food, whatever. We all do things to avoid pain, and those things become part of the patterns that shape our lives. So when as adults on New Year’s Eve we decide we’re all of a sudden going to stop doing that thing, good luck – karma or brain patterning or whatever you want to call it is going to make it very difficult.

The yogic approach to changing this, according to Cope – which is very much like the Buddhist approach, which grew out of yoga philosophy – is simply to begin to focus our attention on the chain of events that leads to the unwanted action. Without judging or condemning it, simply notice when the craving or withdrawing or whatever problematic action arises. What is happening at that moment? What is the underlying feeling you’re fleeing?

Continue to watch it. What happens next? Do you reach for a drink, a cookie, or walk out the door? Do you get angry and yell at someone, or pick up your phone and get absorbed in your Twitter or Facebook feed? Whatever it is, just start by observing it. We tend to be so judgmental of ourselves that we refuse even to witness this chain of events, because it causes us so much shame. But as Cope explains, “[w]hen we pare away judgment, something remarkable happens. We’re free, for the first time, to observe how the pattern really works.”

So the key is to approach this all with compassion. Recognize it’s not “you” that’s doing this, in the sense of some fixed sense of yourself as a bad person. It’s just a part of your patterning, and we all have patterns that make us suffer. Only by letting go of the judgment and being willing to look at those patterns can we truly see them, and then take steps to interrupt them.

I’m not saying this is easy. Last night I was feeling sick, and tired, recovering from some sort of a bug I’d caught after not getting enough sleep on New Year’s eve, which I was still angry at myself about.   When I feel shitty, my impulse is usually toward sugar. Preferably chocolate. While I usually try not to keep that stuff around, lots of it ended up in our house over the holidays, and it was calling to me. Fortunately, I was reading Cope’s book, and after a couple of chocolate kisses I reminded myself to slow down and just feel what I was feeling. Tired. Pain in my stomach. Feelings of regret and disappointment at having let myself get to this state, after having set all sorts of intentions to live more deliberately and be healthier. I let those feelings wash over me, and reminded myself to be compassionate about it all. I felt the urge to run away from them slowly dissipate. The need for chocolate melted away. I realized that what I really needed was to sleep. I went to bed soon after.

Obviously some habits are more difficult than this one, but the process is basically the same. (For a highly simplified and overdramatized but compelling version of how exposing unconscious habits helps them unravel, watch Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Marnie, which I watched for the first time the other night.) Whether it’s Western psychology or yoga or Buddhism or any other contemplative tradition, the idea is the same: become aware of the internal chain of events that leads to the action you’re taking that you want to stop. Observe it without judgment.

Eventually, let yourself have the feelings that are arising, without reacting to them. Maybe at first you can ward off the reaction for just a few minutes. Over time, as you continue to make conscious and interrupt the chain of events, they have less power over you. The urge to act begins to dissipate. And you’re able to interrupt the chain earlier and earlier in the process.   The practices of yoga and meditation (and probably some Western practices of prayer as well) are designed to get us to slow down and focus enough that we can become aware of what’s happening internally, so we can make deliberate choices about how we want to act.

All of this helps explain why I don’t like the idea of New Year’s “resolutions.” A “resolution” is “a firm decision to do or not do something” and “the action of solving a problem,” and as we’ve seen, such deeply ingrained problems can rarely be “solved” simply by deciding to take any one action.

An “intention,” on the other hand, is “an aim or a plan,” or “a design.” It’s more like setting a path toward reaching an eventual destination. An intention allows you to be human – to stray from the path on occasion, as you’re inevitably lured by shiny objects that catch your eye along the way. But if it’s a true intention that’s important to you, and perhaps you create reminders for yourself of that, at least some outline or markings of the path remain. You’re still laying that path along the way, but the intention acts as a compass that aims you toward your ultimate goal.

I like that.