Emily vanSonnenberg, MAPP '10, designed and teaches the UCLAx course, Happiness: Theory, Research, and Application in Positive Psychology. She operates a private practice helping people cultivate meaningful and fulfilling lives, and consults for organizations on how to create desired outcomes and increase well-being. Through her articles and speaking engagements, Emily translates psychological research into practical guidance and goal-directed strategies for the general public. Full Bio. Emily's articles are here.
How many of you admit to having at least one bad habit you’d rather do without? If you’re honest with yourself–that is, if you realize that you’re human–then you nodded your head. Pick your head up, because there is good news: habits are learned. Therefore, you can unlearn bad habits and learn new, positive habits to replace those undesirable ones!
How? Let’s explore the brain’s mechanisms that underlie habit formation and what it takes to form new habits.
What is a Habit?
A habit is automatic behavior that occurs without much conscious thought.
The term, habit is often thought of as the automatic behavioral engagement in a destructive activity. However often that may be true, a habit can also be the automatic behavioral engagement in an activity that serves to promote well-being. Would you like to possess new and positive habits that do, in fact, serve your well-being?
Perhaps the thoughts that now come to mind are, “Awww geez, how much effort will I have to expend to get into the positive habit of exercising every day before work [writing in a Gratitude Journal every night before bed] [devoting more energy to my friendships that have taken a backseat to my job]?”
It will, undoubtedly, require effort to form new and positive habits. With concerted, disciplined effort over a period of time, frequently repeated behaviors can become automatic. By using some of the willpower lurking within you, new positive behaviors can become habits.
The Brain on Habits
MIT researcher Thorn and colleagues have identified areas located within the brain that account for habit formation, namely the basal ganglia.
The basal ganglia play a large role in movement control, emotion, cognition, and reward-based learning. Within the basal ganglia, there are two areas responsible for the functions that work in unison to form habits:
- The dorsolateral part of the striatum controls movement and is connected to sensorimotor functioning (seeing, hearing, moving, etc.)
- The dorsomedial striatum controls flexible behavior and is connected to areas where associations are recognized and formed
For example, when we move a part of our body in a new way and it feels good, for example salsa dancing, the dorsolateral striata are active. When we feel a sense of accomplishment for having tried something new, the association is recognized in the dorsomedial striata. Our brain then experiences reinforcement (formation beginning) that this new activity is one that serves us well.
Okay, so you tried something once. How long must the new behavior be repeated until the behavior becomes a habit?
Habits Take Time to Form, Though Not Much
Habit formation researchers Lally and colleagues from the University College London recently discovered the time period it takes for the brain areas just mentioned to learn a new habit. There is no one standard time period for a habit to form — it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. More specifically, the period of time depends on the difficulty of the activity being learned and the level of commitment on the part of the individual.
For example, it is markedly easier to form the habit of drinking one glass of water every day than it is to do 60 sit-ups every morning before work. Lally and colleagues discovered that, on average, participants learning to form a new habit succeeded within 66 days. By the 66-day mark, the repeated practice of those activities had hit their plateau of learning increases, and thus, the behaviors became as automatic as they ever would become.
These researchers identified an important caveat to keep in mind regarding learning a new habit: early practice of the activity resulted in greater increases in automaticity. So, if you’re going to miss a day from your repeated daily practice of learning a new habit, skip a day that is further along in the 66-day period, since the reward/increase in learning for a new behavior is greatest at the onset.
Examples of Positive Habits
An abundance of potential habits exist which research shows can foster our well-being and ability to flourish. If you want to increase your well-being–feel more positive emotions, more meaning, closer relationships, and a greater sense of accomplishment, consider implementing these positive activities (or come up with your own) every day to form habits that contribute to well-being.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal at night.
- Practice random acts of kindness to strangers.
- Engage in a novel activity with your partner each week and talk about the new experience together.
- Learn a new word.
- Begin a new hobby (or re-awaken one you enjoyed as a kid)
How to Break a Bad Habit
If you want to break a bad habit, here is one method that is often successful:
- Identify a positive habit and congruent behavior you would like to adopt.
- Identify the habit you want to break.
- Recognize the sensory impulse(s) you experience in your body or other stimuli that occur just before you usually act on the negative habit.
- Instead of acting on the negative impulse, use your conscious attention to re-focus your thoughts and behaviors on the new and positive habit you identified in Step 1.
- Substitute the new behavior that is congruent with the positive habit you want to form for the behaviors of the negative habit.
Continue Steps 4 and 5 for at least 66 days. Notice that you are using the triggers from the old habit to reinforce your practice of the new habit.
Living Automatically, by Choice
All in all, if you want to form a new habit, you can! Acquiring a new habit tends to take just over two months until it is automatically cemented into your brain’s neural pathways. Use the willpower inside yourself to commit to repeating the behavior so that you can form a new and positive habit. Sooner than you may anticipate, you will no longer need to think about doing the behavior. It will become automatic.
You can develop good or bad habits. Take your pick. If you consciously behave the way you want to behave for only a few months, it grows markedly easier, as you adopt new positive habits that contribute to well-being. The effects that positive habits can have on your well-being are nothing short of life-changing, and this, is within your control.
“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle
Editor’s note: This article appears in the chapter on Self-Regulation in the book, Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674
Thorn, C. A., Atallah, H., Howe, M., & Graybiel, A. M. (2010). Differential dynamics of activity changes in dorsolateral and dorsomedial striatal loops during learning. Neuron, 66(5), 781-795. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.04.036
Maymin, S. (2007). Create New Habits: Self-Regulation. PositivePsychologyNews.com
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Inside the brain courtesy of Andrew Mason
Basal Ganglia courtesy of wikipedia
Drinking water courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt
Positive emotions in notes courtesy of Nina Mathews
Crossroads courtesy of Lori Greig