This month is all about illusions, and what better illusions are there than our daily habits? These are not just the things we practice daily, but the ones we take part in because we think there is no other way, the ones we think we need to do, no matter what. Smoking, drinking, overthinking, worrying, or even excessive working can all be activities, which are perceived as the only response to certain situations.
In this Talk of The Week, Judson Brewer talks about becoming disenchanted from self-made illusions through nothing more than curiosity. Or, to use the buzz word, through mindfulness. Moving beyond any connotations the overused term might conjure up, we can appreciate what it actually means: being present, curious, and engaged with one’s current activity. But why does this work?
Brewer describes how our brains work with positive and negative reinforcement: we have a negative trigger like hunger that we make go away through eating. Because eating makes us feel good. We end up misusing the activity any other time we want to eliminate any present moment’s pain. This example goes for all of our habits, whether they have a positive, neutral, or negative effect. Tough day at work? Cigarette break. Broken heart? Another piece of cake can make you feel better. Overwhelmed? A nap can do the trick.
In Brewer’s studies, people who have been lifelong smokers were able to break the habit in an unusual way. They were encouraged to smoke, but to do so while being curious about what they can notice, from the taste, the texture, to anything else they can pick-up on. One of his participants described the process of mindful smoking in the following way:
Smells like stinky cheese, and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!
This engagement with smoking provided a more effective way of stopping than sheer willpower, and the reason why is because curiosity is naturally rewarding. Effectively, participants did not have to suddenly stop a habit and leave their craving unmet, but to replace it with the sensation of feeling good through curiosity alone.
What habits might you have that could be replaced with curiosity? Do you compulsively surf the internet when you have a deadline? Do you find yourself hesitating when you need to make a decision? No matter what it is, you would always be able to find a different cause for your habits. All you need to do is stop. And listen.