Video: How Other People Affect Your Habits, and You Affect Their Habits

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Other People.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “Associate with people who are likely to improve you,” and if you want to form good habits, this is a very important thing to keep in mind.

Other people’s actions and habits exert tremendous influence on me, as mine do on them.

What others do, say, and think rubs off on me.  For instance, in a phenomenon known as “health concordance,” couples’ health habits and statuses tend to merge over time. One partner’s health behaviors—habits related to sleep, eating, exercise, doctor visits, use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana—influence those behaviors in a partner. If one partner has type 2 diabetes, the other partner faces a significant increase in the risk of developing it, as well. If one partner gives up cigarettes or alcohol, the other is more likely to quit.

Also, because we’re quite susceptible to “goal contagion,” we may rapidly pick up someone else’s habits, so it’s helpful to be around people who are good role models. In fact, I’ve found that I’m more likely to be persuaded by seeing one person’s successful action than by the most impressive research. It’s a data point of one—but for me that’s a very persuasive data point.

Once I thought about it, I was startled to realize how often I’d picked up a strong habit based on someone’s passing remark.

People fall into three gears when it comes to supporting (or opposing) other people’s healthy habits.

Drive: People in “drive” mode add energy and propulsive force to our habits. They can be very helpful as they encourage, remind, and join in. However, if they’re too pushy, they may be a nuisance, and their enthusiasm can rouse a spirit of opposition. They may very well push a Rebel away from a good habit.

Reverse: Some people press others to reverse out of a healthy habit. They may do this from a sense of love, such as the food pushers who argue, “You should enjoy yourself!” or “I baked this just for you!” Or their behavior may be more mean-spirited, as they try to tempt, ridicule, or discourage us from sticking to a healthy habit.

Neutral: These folks go along with our habits. They support us whatever we do. Sometimes this is useful, but sometimes this support makes it easier to indulge in habits when we know we shouldn’t.

Have you noticed a time when you picked up a habit from someone else? Or when someone else’s habit rubbed off on you? Once I started paying attention, I was surprised by just how often this happens.

Are You Good at Making Excuses?

I was laughing as I read this piece from the satire magazine, The Onion: “Personal Trainer Impressed by Man’s Improved Excuses.

It purports to be an interview with a personal trainer who’s impressed by one of his clients — a guy who has made amazing improvements in the sophistication of the excuses he’s giving for not working out.

“Acknowledging that the progress made in such a short time was remarkable…[the personal trainer said] he is very impressed by the improvement in both the strength and consistency of his client’s excuses…’A few months ago he had really weak pretenses for not sticking to a workout plan, but he’s put in a lot of effort and now he’s sporting much more robust and powerful justifications…After seeing how he struggled early on with a simple excuse about traffic, it’s gratifying to see him push himself and dig deep for rationalizations that more believably exonerate him…[like] tackling a long, grueling story about how construction in his neighborhood aggravated his dust mite allergies.'”

I love this piece, because I love loopholes. Loopholes are so funny.  So imaginative, and so ingenious. We’re like cell phones searching for a signal — as we cast about for an appropriate loophole to let us off the hook.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do. ” When we want to find a loophole, we can always find a reason.

Note: with a loophole, we’re not mindfully making an exception, but looking for a justification that excuses us from sticking to a particular habit.

If we can spot loopholes, we can perhaps resist invoking them, and do a better job of keeping a good habit.

The ten — yes, ten — categories of loopholes are:

1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that” – this is one I often use, myself

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself”

5. Planning to fail loophole, formerly known as the “Apparently irrelevant decision loophole”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “I’m on vacation” “I’m sick” “It’s the weekend”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “the label says it’s healthy”

8. Concern for others loophole — “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”

10. One-coin loophole“What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

I love that the Onion article highlights the point that even if a person’s workouts aren’t improving, he might be improving his loophole-seeking.

What loophole do you invoke most often? I listed my own favorite as #1, the false choice loophole. But I think that others, such as #4 and #6, are more popular.

 

Which Kind of Collector Are You: Aim to Complete, or Yearn to Possess?

“Collectors are basically of two kinds; those who aim at completing a series, and those who long to possess things that have bewitched them. The former, of whom stamp and coin collectors are the obvious examples, enjoy the pleasures of a limited aim, and its comforting certainties. The latter may suffer ups and downs, changes of heart and deceptions, but they have several great advantages. They never know when some new love will inflame them; they learn a great deal more about themselves from their possessions; and in the end they are surrounded by old friends, with long love stories which they must try hard not to tell their friends.”

–Kenneth Clarke, Another Part of the Wood

In both The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I write about collections — the happiness that they give some people, and why, and my own desire to enjoy that kind of satisfaction.

Do you collect anything — if so, what do you collect? Are you the first kind, or the second kind?

Do You Ever Yield to a Temptation Out of Concern for Someone Else?

I love all fables, paradoxes, koans, teaching stories,  and aphorisms. That’s one reason I love to keep my Secrets of Adulthood – my own contribution.

For this reason, when I was last wandering through the library, I couldn’t resist pulling out William March’s book, 99 Fables.

And I was particularly struck by Fable #4, “The Persimmon Tree,” about a loophole-invoking possum.

In the fable, a possum looks longingly at the delicious persimmons hanging from the fox’s tree, and thinks about how badly he wants one. “’No,’ he said. ‘The fox is my friend and benefactor, and he trusts me. Oh, no!’”

Several days later, he stares again at the persimmon tree, where the fruits had reached their finest flavor. His mouth waters, but he turns away and goes home.

There, he sees his wife, who says, “’What a morning this would be for eating persimmons! When I think how sweet they are…I could break down and cry my eyes out.’”

The possum says, “’That settles it. I’ll take those persimmons if it’s the last thing I ever do…Why, what sort of a creature would I be if I deprived my sweet, faithful wife of persimmons—endangering her health and making her cry her dear eyes out.’”

The fable concludes: “We often do for the sake of others what we would like to do for ourselves.”

In Better Than Before, my book about habits, my favorite chapter (I admit it, I have a favorite) is the chapter on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I identify the ten — yes, ten — categories of loopholes. (Here’s a list of all ten.) Now, what’s a loophole?    A loophole is  a justification that we invoke to excuse us from keeping this particular action or habit in this particular situation. We’re not mindfully making exceptions, we’re invoking a loophole as an excuse.

The possum is invoking the “concern for others” loophole. We tell ourselves that we’re acting out of consideration for others and making generous, unselfish decisions. Or, more strategically, we decide we must do something in order to fit in to a social situation.

It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I get up early to write.

 

I’m not buying this junk food for me, I have to keep it around for others.

 

So many people need me, there’s no time to focus on my own health.

 

It would be so rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of birthday cake.

 

I don’t want to seem holier-than-thou.

 

Changing my schedule would inconvenience other people.

 

I can’t ask my partner to stay with the kids while I go to class.

 

At a business dinner, if everyone is drinking, it would seem weird if I didn’t drink. (This loophole comes up a lot with drinking. Teenagers aren’t the only ones to feel peer pressure to drink, it seems.)

We all have the few loopholes that we invoke most readily. My own personal favorite is the false choice loophole.

Do you agree with the moral of the fable, that “We often do for the sake of others what we would like to do for ourselves”?

Have you ever done something that you thought you shouldn’t, for the benefit of someone else? This loophole is tricky, because sometimes to do that is a form of virtue, and other times, a form of self-deception.

 

Secret of Adulthood: I Wish I Could Not Wish

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

Do you ever feel this way?

I love any kind of koan, paradox, fables, or teaching story.