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Live a Happier, Healthier Life

by Susannah Wollman

The new year has arrived and people everywhere are making resolutions. Most of them won’t be kept. How do you feel about that? If you don’t keep the resolutions you make, what is stopping you?

Could it be your habits?

A popular idea is that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily—in fact, it is rarely—true.  Mark Vahrmeyer, a psychotherapist and the founder of Brighton & Hove Psychotherapy, says it’s easy to see why this theory is so appealing. “It is both concrete and makes building a new habit seem very achievable,” he says. “The truth, however, is that it’s more complex and on average it takes far longer.”

The Oxford Research Encyclopedia defines the term habit as denoting  “a process whereby exposure to a cue automatically triggers a non-conscious impulse to act due to the activation of a learned association between the cue and the action” (Gardner, 2015).

Mindset coach Dr. Maurice Duffy tells his clients that habits play a central role in determining our actions. “Habits are the small decisions you make and the actions you perform every day. Your life today is essentially the sum of these habits.”

Habits, he believes, are different from routine. “A habit is a behavior done with little or no thought,” Duffy says. “A routine involves a series of behaviors [performed] frequently and intentionally repeated. Unlike habits, routines are uncomfortable and require a concerted effort to change. Habits, on the other hand, are so ingrained in our daily lives that it feels strange not to do them.”

Routines are sets of actions that are repeated for expected consequences. You routinely flip on the light switch because you anticipate illumination—the consequence that follows an action. You habitually flip on the light switch, however, even when you know it is broken because flipping on the light switch in the past has produced illumination. Routines achieve goals; there is no thought of consequence when you habitually perform an action.

Not every habit is beneficial; some may actually be harmful. Why? Because habit formation doesn’t happen in the prefrontal cortex, the “reasonable” part of the brain that performs decision-making functions. A peer-reviewed article published in 2006 in the scientific journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience posits that the ability to develop and maintain habits is rooted in the basal ganglia, central to emotional development, pattern recognition, problem solving and learning. Thus, certain behaviors take place without any decision-making process and others appear to be linked to emotional states like stress or sadness.

According to Alyssa Roberts, a researcher at the University of Minnesota studying eating disorders, “Habits are formed through a process of habituation,” or repetition. “Habituation occurs when a behavior is repeated enough times, and the brain adapts to [the repetition] by making the response automatic.”

Journalist and author Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit,” popularized the concept called the “habit loop.” This theory has three stages to forming a habit: cue (or trigger), behavior, and reward. Stress (the cue), for example, may lead you to overeat (the behavior), leading to temporary comfort (the reward). Once the behavior becomes repetitive, the brain starts seeing the behavior as an opportunity for reward. So the trigger prompts you to perform the same behavior to gain pleasure.

The European Journal of Social Psychology says that habit formation may take between 18 and 254 days. The average time is 66 days to make a behavior automatic.

So how do habits lead to happiness and health?

Instead of resolutions, which are usually changes in routines with expected outcomes, habit formation is more likely to last.  And to maintain habits, you will need the proper motivation. Motivations that lead to pleasurable outcomes are more likely to produce maintenance if they enable regular rewards from doing the behavior rather than from the experience of changing. These rewards may be:

  • enjoyable activity
  • satisfaction from the behavior
  • self-determination
  • congruence with your identity, beliefs, and values

Vahrmeyer notes that the way you make your goal more attractive is important in your success. “If the process of building your habit involves nothing but self-sacrifice with no reward, you are unlikely to stick to your goals,” Vahrmeyer says.

Habit formation can also be made more satisfying. “Perhaps you approach the latter by celebrating milestones along the way and rewarding yourself with a gift linked to the new habit,” says Vahrmeyer.

Some habits to consider cultivating for health and happiness

  1. Physical activity improves mood and enhances happiness by increasing serotonin, decreasing stress hormones, and as a positive distraction from worries and problems. You can decrease feelings of anger and tension in as little as 10 minutes outside. It doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as it is physical activity that you enjoy.
  2. Good nutrition does not mean dieting, deprivation, or avoiding foods you love. It means eating well, using all the food groups, and focusing on pleasurable nutrition. Keep it simple by making healthy choices when possible and practice portion control.
  1. Manage your stress by utilizing things like mindful exercise, meditation, deep breathing, or hobbies that you enjoy and find peaceful. Try to avoid common stressors. If an invitation to hang out with your coworkers produces anxiety, don’t accept. Protect yourself and learn to say no.
  2. But do get social. Community is important to emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Friends and family are the core of your community, but if you also have a spiritual community, don’t neglect getting together with them outside of formal settings. Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or a little of both, you need other people. Make your “peeps” authentic and supportive connections.
  1. Don’t skimp on sleep. Most of us, at one time or another, seem too busy to get a good night’s sleep. Students in college and residents in hospitals seem to live with very little sleep. But recovery is essential for both physical and mental health. Sleep is the time when your mind and body both recover from the day’s rigors. The average person needs between six and eight hours of sleep every day. And don’t kid yourself that you’ll “catch up” on the weekends by sleeping in! You need regular sleep in a regular pattern. In fact, you should try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. Sleep deprivation can have critical consequences to our health. Want to lose weight? Get enough sleep. Want to quit smoking? Get enough sleep. If your hormones are out of balance, you are pre-diabetic, or have high blood pressure, you need optimal sleep. Not getting enough sleep can also compromise the immune system. On top of that, lack of sleep can make you downright cranky.
  1. Five to 15 minutes of sunshine at least three times a week is all you need to enjoy the Vitamin D boosting benefits of the sun’s light—but the sunlight must penetrate the skin. Sunscreen and clothing that covers the skin prevents this benefit from occurring. Vitamin D is necessary for healthy bones. Sunlight also is necessary for the proper release of the hormone serotonin, responsible for mood boosting, calmness, and focus. Sunlight cues certain special areas in the retina to release serotonin. Other conditions that have shown a positive response to sunlight include certain kinds of cancer, skin diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, and thyroiditis. (There’s a reason all those children’s drawings show the sun smiling!)
  1. Cultivate gratitude. I’ve saved the best for last. The key to a happy life may be counting your blessings and being grateful for what you have instead of fretting over what you don’t have. A positive mindset carries over into every area of your life. According to many research studies, grateful people are happier, healthier, and less stressed.

Changing habits and learning new ways of being happy doesn’t come easily or all at once. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect as you develop these new habits. No one does it right all the time. When you forget or fall back into od ways, pick yourself up and move on. Being kind to yourself and not allowing bumps along the road to derail your efforts can go a long, long way to living a happier, healthier life.