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It’s Time to Trade Old Habits for New Ones

Five new ways to help you flourish.

As millions of us are resuming our usual activities after years of Covid restrictions—while taking reasonable steps to avoid further outbreak, both locally and nationwide—we can cultivate new positive habits instead of just going back to the same old routines.

We may not be aware of it, but habits are powerful foundations for our lives. Research shows that habits strongly influence at least 45 percent of our daily activities. These are activities we typically do automatically (Neal, Wood, & Quinn, 2006). We build our habits by conscious choices, repeating them until they become automatic, part of our brain’s procedural memory (Robbins & Costa, 2017). In the morning, we wake up and brush our teeth—without making a conscious decision to do so.

Some habits, like brushing our teeth, are healthy. Others, not so much. Our habits are activated by contextual cues. If we want to break an old habit of snacking on junk food, one way is to eliminate the contextual cue—take the candy dish off the kitchen table. Another way is to replace an unhealthy habit with a healthier one, giving yourself a new contextual cue by putting a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table instead.

To bring greater joy, vitality, and meaning to your life, you can build new habits based on what positive psychology researchers call the five components of flourishing: PERMA: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (Seligman, 2011). This is a perfect time to do it; over two years of Covid restrictions have taken us out of our old routines, including many of the contextual cues for habits we’d like to replace.

To begin this process, look over the PERMA categories below. Which of these categories could help you trade an old limiting habit for a positive one? Would you like to have more positive emotions? A greater sense of engagement? More positive relationships? Greater meaning in your life? A sense of accomplishment?

When you’ve chosen a category to focus on, ask yourself, “What is one way I can build a new flourishing habit in this area? Here are some possibilities to consider.

P=Positive Emotions. What makes you happy? The national Hopeful Mindsets Project (iFred, 2021) has identified happiness habits that can foster positive feelings. They include: listening to your favorite music, playing an instrument, exercising, spending time in nature, singing, pursuing a favorite hobby, learning new things, volunteering, spending time with people you love, and practicing gratitude. To begin experiencing more positive emotions, choose one happiness habit and incorporate it into your life this week.

E=Engagement. What do you enjoy doing that makes time disappear? Some people find this sense of engagement or “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) in a creative practice: writing, painting, or dancing. Others find it exercising or playing games. Still, others find it in doing work they love. What brings you this sense of flow? How can you begin making it a regular part of your life?
R=Relationships. As humans, we need caring relationships where we feel loved and accepted. Research has associated isolation and loneliness with a weakened immune system, increased inflammation, high blood pressure, poor sleep quality, and depression (Cacioppo, Hawkley, and Thisted, 2010; Umberson and Montez, 2010). But not all relationships are positive. Sometimes we find ourselves relating to someone out of habit, guilt, or obligation. Positive relationships energize us. You can feel the difference. What is one way to cultivate more positive, energizing relationships in your life?
M=Meaning. Our days are filled with activities like going to work, washing the dishes, and taking out the trash. Some activities feel like basic maintenance while others inspire us with a sense of joy and meaning. People can discover this sense of meaning in different ways from caring for a beloved child or pet to reaching out to others in creative work or volunteering for a cause you believe in. What brings you a sense of meaning? How can you include more of it in your life?
A=Accomplishment. Remember that sense of satisfaction when you achieved a goal, whether it was completing a project at work or running your first 5K race. To build a new habit of accomplishment, think of a goal you’d like to achieve and write it down.
As you begin building your new habit, don’t try to do too much too soon. Building habits takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Start with one small step. According to author James Clear (2018), the key to successfully establishing a new habit is beginning with a small step, then repeating it. He recommends the “two-minute rule.” As you begin a new habit, your first step should take less than two minutes to perform (2018, p. 162).
Now write down three steps towards your goal, an obstacle that might come up for each step, and an alternative step to overcome the obstacle. Close your eyes and visualize yourself taking each step, overcoming each obstacle, and reaching your goal. Then open your eyes and arrange to take the first step. (Feldman and Dreher, 2012).

These small steps, over time, can bring you new positive habits and a more vibrant, flourishing life.

This article was orginally published on April 27, 2022 in Psychology Today. This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

Counseling Psychology, Faculty, Family, ECP
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