Habit Formation and its Impact on Well-being
- From Mental Health For Millennials Vol 4 On Wellbeing. (2020). Galway: Book Hub Publishing. Pages 3.-15.
|We are creatures of habit and tend to repeat the same behaviours in recurring contexts. I became interested in the yin and yang of practices as I negotiated to work at home during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. From March-June 2020, during government-imposed ‘lockdown’, I re-negotiated my ‘work-space-time’ routine in ways that were incredibly positive to my well-being. As Marrinan (2018) so aptly describes in her book ‘Another Zero’, it presented an opportunity to re-evaluate my lifestyle and to incorporate the habit of daily exercise as a new way of ‘Being’ in the ‘Working from Home’ routine. It afforded me time to re-balance the new challenges that presented themselves due to the closure of my workplace and the sudden, unexpected demands of ‘remote working from home’.|
What is Well-being?
Well-being is a complex, multidimensional concept that has baffled psychologists to agree on any one definition. For this chapter, I will utilise the theory as advocated by Dodge et al. (2012: 228) “well-being is the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced”. This theory has focused on three key areas: the idea of a set point for well-being, the desire for equilibrium or homeostasis and the fluctuating and changing nature that exists between challenges and resources. From this perspective, well-being is described as tipping the ‘see-saw’ from side to side, always striving to gain balance and stability. When individuals have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips and vice-versa with consequences for well-being. This sense of balance is central to Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975) concept of flow, a state of mind that occurs when an individual is so deeply engaged in an activity that time seems to stop (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi 2014).
From this perspective, well-being comprises the individuals ‘resource pool’ and ‘challenges’ which are made up of psychological, social and physical elements, and the ‘see-saw’ is the balance point in the centre (Dodge et al. 2012) This theory has an emphasis on positive psychology. It views individuals as decision-makers with choices and preferences and thus, well-being stems from an individual’s perception of their current situation, and their attempt to gain a new equilibrium amongst the fluctuation states between challenges and resources. Developing new habits during this time helped re-balance the ‘see-saw’ of my well-being.
What is a Habit?
A habit is defined as a psychological disposition to repeat behaviour, formed over time as we repeatedly respond in a recurrent/familiar context (Wood et al., 2009). Some researchers agree that habits are related to goals and rewards. Others suggest that practices are actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues and that these cues are associated with the performance of the activity (Wood & Neal, 2007) — for example, putting on a seatbelt (action) after getting into the car (contextual cue). Research shows that the repetition of a simple story in a consistent context results in repeated action when exposed to the contextual signal regularly (Lally et al. 2010). Also, once external cues stimulate the activity, dependence on conscious attention or motivational process are reduced (Lally et al. 2011). This means that habits are likely to continue even after the motivation to do the activity declines (Gardiner et al. 2011). As a result, practices are cognitively efficient because the automatic nature of the action frees up mental resources for other activities. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey (2020) describes habits as the intersection between knowledge, skills and desire. Experience is the theoretical element, involving the what to do and the way talent is the how to do, passion is the motivation, the want to do. He conceptualises habits as a powerful gravitational pull that keeps our world together. He suggests that this gravity pull of addiction can be used to create cohesiveness and order to be effective in our lives.
Habit Formation and Goals
Habits develop as we go about everyday life. Its formation is closely intertwined with goals. Over time, as we respond to context cues, the habit association to take action gets more robust. As a result, our behaviour becomes less responsive to goals. In other words, with time and repeated performance of the activity, triggered by contextual cues, the importance of goals lesson as time goes on.
Millennials, Habit Formation and Well-being
A growing body of literature demonstrates that habit formation plays a vital role in the enhancement of positive lifestyle choices and well-being. Millennials grew up in a time of rapid change, which gives them different perspectives to previous generations (MacGiolla Bhuí, 2019). They are individuals, aged between 18-31 years of age, born between 1980 and 1999, often called the health-conscious generation, whether it is eating healthy foods or exercising (a theme developed in a chapter by Fitzgibbon in this book).
Habit formation plays a vital role in well-being. Lally et al. (2010) investigated the process of habit formation in everyday life using a volunteer group of 96 university students who choose an eating or drinking or physical activity to carry out every day for 12 weeks (Lally et al. 2010). Participants were asked to take part in a health-promoting behaviour such as eating fruit or going for a walk-in response to a once a day environmental cue, such as after breakfast. Findings indicated that habit strength increased for 66 days and then reached a plateau. Interestingly, missing an occasional day did not influence the habit formation process, and the intuitive nature of the habit continued. About physical activity behaviours, the time it took for a habit to plateau was 91 days and automaticity peaked at 35 days. Automaticity increased steadily over the days of the study, supporting the idea that repeating a behaviour in a consistent setting grew automaticity. It also showed that, for some actions, self-control is required for longer until the behaviour is carried out automatically without self-control.
More recent research conducted by Gardner et al. (2012), with a sample of 192 university psychology students, aged 18-30, investigated the role of intrinsic motivation regulation, intention and behavioural strength about the habit of physical activity. Benefits of physical activity include a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer and an enhancement of well-being through the release of feel-good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. Therefore, understanding the mechanism of habit formation is essential.
Self-Determinant theory suggests that autonomously motivated activity fulfils human need for competence and autonomy all critical elements in the promotion of self-esteem, self-worth and well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Findings from Gardner et al. (2012) study indicate that a direct effect exists between relative autonomy and habit strength. Physical activity that is driven by the personal value placed on the move may strengthen performance rather than the consequence of the action. Consistent with this view, Neal et al. (2012) found that runners with healthy running habits automatically thought of running and jogging when exposed to words that captivated the places where they traditionally ran. Wood & Neal (2007) explain that with each repetition of the activity, small changes occur in the cognitive and neural mechanism associated with procedural memory. In this way, mental associations between context cues (such as pictures of where they usually ran) and the response (to run) is strengthened. At a neural level, midbrain dopamine response acts as a teaching signal for habit formation. Also, it is proposed that with extensive practice, habit learning is consolidated in the cortical brain areas. Evidence indicates that the sensorimotor cortico-BG loop is a core neural pathway of habit learning and action (Wood & Runger 2016).
This has value in addressing how to reduce unwanted habits. Wood & Runger (2016) suggest that interference from old habits can be reduced by changing cues in everyday environments. Therefore, habit discontinuity interventions include reducing exposure to signals that trigger old habits. Habit formation allows individuals to capitalise on the regular pattern of environmental cues for action. This is important for well-being in the future as the cultivation of increased physical activity has enormous health and well-being benefits. Building on the knowledge of habit formation offers the potential to form healthy habits for ourselves, for Millennials, for our families and society at large.
Phases of Habit Formation
Interesting work was conducted by Gardner et al. (2012) into the phases of habit formation, which developed a three-phased approach:
- Initiation phase – the new behaviour and the context in which it will be done are identified
- Learning phase – it is during this phase that automaticity develops, the action is repeated in the specified context to strengthen the context-behaviour association.
- Stability phase – the habit has formed, and its strength has plateaued. As a result, the practice persists over time with minimal effort or deliberation.
It is also essential that the individual is trying to integrate a new behaviour into their everyday life, choose the action themselves (Deci & Ryan 1987; Cushman & Morris 2015; Wood 2017). When trying to alter behavioural change and develop new and positive habits, it is important to frame it positively, have it as a small, realistic achievable and manageable behavioural change initially because otherwise, failure can be disempowering. Demotivating, e.g., ‘I will walk to the shops every day’ rather than ‘I will not drive my car to the shops’, remembering that small changes to physical activity are beneficial to health and well-being. Also, changing one little healthy habit can increase autonomy and self-confidence and thus encourage other health-promoting habits in the future. It is estimated that habit formation can take up to 10 weeks to become automatic, but it also becomes more comfortable as time goes on (Lally et al. 2010). The key is for individuals to try to keep their motivation until the habit forms and becomes automatic.
A Personal Perspective
On March 18th 2020, I started going for a walk, every day, in the early afternoon. At the time, I gave it no special consideration. But within a few weeks, I realised something ‘big’ was happening here. This time in the afternoon became the ‘precious-time’ in the day. There was nothing to interfere with this routine. I was home. There was, in a sense, ‘no excuse’. I wasn’t tired; I’d rid myself of commute time and no longer worked late to avoid the build-up of traffic on my way home. I felt more in control of my own time. It was easy to incorporate this new walking routine into my day.
I was now ‘time-rich’, and the frustration of ‘fitting-it-in’ evaporated. This was an ‘awe’ moment of realisation that ‘Home-Working’ facilitated my newly acquired habit of regular, repeated, daily physical activity. After a few weeks, I began to look forward with anticipation to what new budding green leaves or tiny flowers I would notice on the verges of the nature trail. Because I was restricted to travel distance of 2 km from home, I was forced to abandon my familiar walking-spaces. The Burren, which I call my ‘spiritual-landscape’ was off-limits. Coole Park, with its acres of woodlands and mature trees, was also outside the 2 km allowed. As a result, I began to walk every day in a local wood and was inspired by its untamed beauty.
The notion of ‘habit’ began to fascinate me. This wood was less than 2 km from my home. As a result, it involved less time spent in the car and more time walking. I went there every day for three months, walking on average 8-10 km per day. The routine, the familiarity of it was easy and comforting.
As referred to earlier, goals and environmental cues are essential in habit formation. When I apply these theories to my own experience, it is an exciting revelation. I set out initially with a goal. I wanted to increase my fitness level. (Phase 1: Initiation) Being at home, I thought – why not! But after a few weeks, the goal became less critical, and the sheer enjoyment, wonder, sense of excitement, sensory experience and feeling of overall well-being took over and became the primary motivator. Walking in the woods became an effortless, seamless part of my day, regardless of the changing weather patterns, which fortunately mostly consisted of pleasing, sunshine days (Phase 2: Learning). Over time, it became a habit that is now cemented into my day (Phase 3: Stability).
So, what about the role of environmental cues in habit formation. Here again, it is interesting. Environmental cues remained strong. I always carry a small backpack to carry water when walking. As the saying goes ‘old habits die hard’, and the words of a former leader of a hiking club used to remind us ‘never go walking without water and provisions’. And because the weather was so lovely, the water was always needed.
‘Clock-time’ was another environmental cue. Early afternoon became my favourite time to walk. Putting the dog in the car was another cue, as was leaving my walking shoes in the same place in the hallway each evening when I returned—changing into gym clothes another alert. All small, but collectively, many environmental cues acted in the formation of this habit. What I also realised is that the practice of going to the same place every day is also essential because it offers consistency in action.
What does all this mean for Well-being?
In terms of my well-being, I am physically fitter, more mentally alert, rested, more energised and spiritually more deeply connected to my local environment. My well-being found a new equilibrium, and I was able to re-balance the see-saw by adapting to new routines and habits.
For Millennials, finding new equilibriums within fluctuating states between challenges and resources in today’s uncertain world is a hugely important and often ignored aspect of their well-being. I include a tool-kit for habit formation that can be used by Millennials or, indeed, other generational cohorts who choose the strengthening of psychological, social and physical resources and enhancement of well-being. Be brave, take one step at a time and go for it!!
I want to conclude with the words of Nic Marks (2012) who spoke of his interpretation of well-being on BBC Radio’s 4:
“Well-being is not a beach you go and lie on. It’s a sort of dynamic dance, and there’s movement in that all the time, and actually, it’s the free duality of that movement which is true levels of well-being” (Nic Marks, 7.01.2012).
Tool-Kit for Habit Formation (adapted from Gardner et al. 2012)
- Decide on a goal that you would like to achieve for your well-being”
- Choose a simple action that you can do daily
- Plan when and where you will do the action
- Be consistent. Choose a time and place that is the same every day of the week.
- Every time you encounter the time and place – do the action.
- It will get more comfortable with time. Within ten weeks, you should be doing it automatically without having to think about it.
- Congratulations, you have made a healthy habit.
If you wish, some people find it helpful to record in a diary when the action is completed each day. Keep this on-going each day for ten weeks and celebrate your success at the end of the period. You’ll have a diary full of written memories and experiences, which can act as a motivator in itself to adopt a new positive habit.
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