Psychologist William James wrote, "Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state." But that was a big "could."
To the young, most things are new. It’s when one gets to the senior years that one notices not only how much of our behavior is locked into habit, but also how important habits become to us as our memories begin to fade. If I always put my car keys in the same place, I’m more apt to find them when I need them.
Habits are an important part of our survival behavior even from a young age. Tying one’s shoelaces for example, has to become an almost unconscious habit pattern, or else every day would be consumed by such minor yet vital tasks as we relearn how to do them, over and over. As a young adult, I despaired at ever learning how to type at an acceptable rate, but after years of fumbling at the keyboard I often notice how my fingers seem to know when I’ve made a mistake, even if I’m not watching the screen.
Mental habits are just as prevalent in our daily living. I still know the multiplication tables that I learned in the third grade, and when I have to do a calculation in my head, the numbers just seem to be there. I noticed a few years ago, however, that I was having trouble remembering telephone numbers, even when I had just looked them up in the directory. I practiced remembering them the same way I practiced the multiplication tables as a child, by repeating them several times, and soon I could again keep seven numbers in my head long enough to dial the telephone. What had allowed to deteriorate my ability to remember such numbers seems to have been my use of the speed dial feature on my telephone. I had to press only a single key to dial each of my frequently used numbers, and I paid for this little convenience by temporarily losing the synapses in my brain.
For a lot of my adult life I have had little spells of amnesia, where certain kinds of memory disappeared for a short time. I could readily remember my name, for example, but not how much I had paid for my car. Last year I had a major episode of what the doctors called "transient global amnesia." My short-term memory was completely gone—I kept asking Judith the same questions, over and over, because I couldn’t remember what she had answered five minutes before. Still, I knew her and even our home address—things that were more deeply imbedded in my memory. So not all memory is the same. Nor is all habit.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that habits are not just for remembering one’s telephone number, but are the basis for being the kind of person we want to be. "Evolution," he writes, "is the history of complexification of living matter." As we have evolved from the early amoeba through the primitive mammal to our present form, the single universal aspect of the process is that at each transition, the organism that survives is nearly always the one possessing the greater complexity. Now that our evolution has been given to us to control, it is essential that we make choices, with other aspects being more or less equal, on the basis of increased complexity. The best moral decisions, for example, are likely to entail shades of gray more than simply black-or-white. Wisdom has always eluded us by seeming to require more complexity in our choices than we think we can handle. And wisdom is what we need.
So Csikszentmihalyi advises us to develop the habit of examining our choices and choosing the more complex one, whenever that is feasible. He doesn’t propose that we become moral bean counters, dwelling forever on the minutia of every decision we make, but simply remember that, the simpler choice, often being instructed by our genes and our cultural upbringing, is not always as likely to move us forward.
William James writes similarly. "Recollect, he instructs himself, that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number."
The key, of course, is free choice. When we choose based upon our own thought-out values rather than upon what others say or do or upon what our appetites want, we are creating our own life. That is, we are, grain by grain, evolving toward what we think is the world we truly want.
It’s difficult to do this all at once. We have to develop the right habits—and they will become all but unconscious, just as how we tie our shoelaces—to take control of our lives and our worlds.
Quoting again from Csikszentmihalyi, "Here is, for instance, how the early Confucians expressed the idea that a strict dedication to disciplined habits of mind could eventually result in complete freedom of action:
"But to become a ‘jen person’ (roughly, a person who fulfills his or her humanity) or a sage requires a long period of training, of understanding how to choose the most harmonious alternative—which corresponds to the Chinese metaphor of ‘walking along the Way.’ It is only because sages disciplined their consciousness to recognize complexity that they could eventually reach the point of dispensing with plans, since their unpremeditated actions could not fail to be moral, and suitable for every contingency."
I suppose I’ve always known this, on some level. Making the hard choices in my life, I’ve not always taken the way I knew I should, and paid for it later. The times I did, even if I gave up something I wanted, I’ve had fewer regrets. In that instant of deciding, if I were fully aware of the "why" on each side of the choice, I’d be able to choose more wisely, and move toward the person I wanted to be. If I were that person, I’d not have to choose, at all, for I’d already have marked the path.
This ability to act, to make almost unconscious choices that one is confident are the right choices, is one of the characteristics of "flow" that Csikszentmihalyi writes about in his several books. The expert in any field, the craftsman, the musician, the alpine climber, have developed discipline in their tasks in order to perform precisely as they want, without having to tell their hands at each moment, "Do this, turn that." Training one’s self to make moral choices without thinking is part of the same wonderful ability that humans have inherited from our ancestors. Well-honed habits, whether mental or physical, can make our lives to be the way we, in our best, most thoughtful, moments, envision them. And in the process, since everything we do affects others, we are helping to take humanity just a little further along the path.
It’s never as easy as the old admonitions such as "Confucius say, (such and such) . . ." Good habits take time. Without question, we develop habits over our lifetimes. We also have the ability to choose the habits that shape our lives.
Donald Skiff, June 23, 2005