Home All Habit Forming, Even in Tough Times

Habit Forming, Even in Tough Times

written by Aren Cohen 12 October 2008

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

We are facing a time in history unlike any other. Headlines tell us of the worst economic crisis in years. Our political system seems anemic. In times like this, one is forced to ask: What good is positive psychology?

Last week was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Officially “The Day of Atonement,” this day of prayer is accompanied by fasting and a litany of breast-beating for the sins committed over the past year. While at first this might seem like it is in direct opposition to positive psychology, to spend a day dwelling on what one has done wrong or done badly over the course of a year, in truth it is one of the most spiritually cleansing acts. It is like making New Year’s resolutions or starting the beginning of the school year organized with fresh notebooks and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed outlook. In part, all of these things, New Year’s, new school years, and Yom Kippur have something in common. The come once a year and they remind us of new beginnings. But more than that, they allow us to become resolute to “getting back on track.” What do I mean by this? Well, after the summer, after all the chaos around us, we need a ritual that allows us to reaffirm our commitment to our good habits. 

     William James

Remember habits? In positive psychology, we know that habitual behavior is important to Aristotle, William James other forefathers of the discipline. In his “Talks to Students,” William James states that “action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” I remember being very resistant to the thought that habits help shape our happiness in my first semester of MAPP. Happiness should not stem from how regularly I made it to the gym, or cooked dinner at home. Yet lately I have been thinking how true James’ comment really is. It is not that my feelings are dictated by my habits, but my actions are. And on those days that I remember to meditate, or write 1000 words, or bike for half an hour, or write in my gratitude journal, or kiss my husband and tell him how much I love him, well, those are the days I feel my best.

I suppose it has something to do with the sense of “accomplishment” that Martin Seligman has been examining, but I think it also has something to do with ritual and with structure. If I can budget the important things into my day, I relish my fun with greater ease. And I am even more motivated to get the “other stuff” done too. Of course, it is a challenge… there is always unexpected paperwork, email, phone calls, even errands like shopping for toilet paper. It all has to get done.However, prioritizing the things that we want to make habitual is important. And it is really useful to have days like the first day of school or a day of atonement to focus our energy and perspective on the things that matter to us.We are living in scary times.

There are a lot of distractions that can take us away from our habits. The radio, CNN, emails from political candidates and checking in with our 401k’s can elevate our fear and distract us from the things we know that will stand us in good stead psychologically speaking. It is not that we should put our heads in the sand. And certainly “positive explanatory style,” while it might help us favor one candidate over another, is not going to solve the credit crisis. But on a much more personal level, the day to day of how we will remember to smile at the person at the grocery store, how we will tell our loved ones how much we care, how we will stay focused on the goals we want to achieve, our discipline of action that leads to good feeling, our good habits, will help us maintain our sanity in challenging times. 


James, William. (1899, 2001) Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals Dover Books.

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Senia Maymin 12 October 2008 - 3:00 pm


So great to hear your voice again. So true about the habit forming and habit keeping – that little things can throw one off track.

That’s a neat connection – that perhaps the reason we like habits is partly from accomplishment. Like Bandura’s mastery steps. Sometimes I think the biggest trick in habits is to find that boundary – where is that level of challenge and still small enough steps that they are doable rather than overwhelming?

Best and thanks for the reminder,

Nicholas Hall 12 October 2008 - 3:34 pm

Hi Aren,

This article comes at a great time for me. This is a wonderful reminder to me about how building in the things in my day that make me happy and contribute to my personal goals/success is mandatory. Email, calls, paperwork, errands, and general work can take up our entire day, even MORE than our entire day, staying up past 1am to do menial things. Ugh.

Habits can help build our long term happiness, while emotional or thought exercises can increase our short term happiness.

Thanks for the article!

Dan Bowling 12 October 2008 - 3:44 pm

Very timely thoughts for us all right now.

Thanks and hope you will be at the MAPP summit.

Dan Bowling

Varun Dabke 13 October 2008 - 6:36 am

This wonderful post reminds me of ‘Attitude Behavior’ loop once explained by Tal Ben Shahar.

According to Indian tradition, it takes 3 weeks to completely form a new habit.
3 months to change life style.
While Buddhist monks spend 3years+3months+3weeks and 3days, meditating in the cave for life transformation.

waynej 13 October 2008 - 3:25 pm

Aren – there was an article in an Australian national newspaper this weekend that reported that people tend to be healthier in harsh economic times – smoke less, drink less, eat better. I suspect than also band together to support each other. The research was undertaken at Stanford.

Karen 4 July 2010 - 3:45 pm


Your thumbnail picture is beautiful. I found your website through Hallowell’s Book, Childhood Rules for Adult Happiness.

question: While I want my kids (one boy and one girl) to have nothing but positive experiences in life, how do I teach them empathy and compassion for the human condition. Currently in 2010 there is a cancer epidemic. My kids are 17 and 13. Should I spare them the gore or should I immerse them into the culture of activism for the greater good? I have always been a activist for medical causes and social causes. My husband disagrees that we should show any of this negativity to our kids.

Please help.


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