How We Form Habits

February 15, 2018


All of our habits form gradually until they become somewhat automatic, so that we don’t really notice we’re doing them anymore. Studies estimate that our habits make up about 45 per cent of our behaviours each day.



This means almost half of our lives consist of habits!



Some habits are positive and health promoting, like flossing our teeth. Other habits, that we often pick up unintentionally, have unknown or unhealthy consequences. Watching several hours of TV each day, for example.


Every habit, positive or negative, is developed through a process called habit formation, a 3-part loop of trigger-action-reward. The trigger is something that starts the action, the action is the behaviour itself and the reward is the benefit we get from doing the action.



This is what the habit formation loop looks like:






Before going to bed you (hopefully!) brush your teeth. You don’t have to remember to do this. It’s automatic. The trigger is going to bed, the action is brushing your teeth and the reward is, say, a happier dentist visit.



There are 3 secrets within the habit formation loop that can help us build positive and healthy habits for life:





A habit can’t even begin to form without a trigger. A good trigger makes a new behaviour easy to start by attaching it to something we already do. If we want to make being thankful a habit for our kids we might use the-last-thing-we-do-before-sleep as a trigger for sharing one thing we each felt thankful for that day.




A habit only sticks when we have a high emotional connection to it. It makes us feel good, for instance. This is the reward part of the habit formation loop. Connecting the action with a rewarding feeling leads us to crave the action. This means we don’t have to rely entirely on (that often elusive) willpower. If being thankful feels like a special sharing time with a loved one, our bodies start to look forward to doing it and this reinforces the habit loop.




A habit lasts through the repetition that comes from practicing. This is because repetition creates neural pathways within a part of our brain where the context of the habit is remembered and becomes hardwired. Being thankful each night will become a habit after it is practiced consistently over time.



So, what about happy habits?



We form all habits via the habit formation loop. We form happy habits by choosing behaviours that have been proven through research to support happiness. Because we know that being thankful is one way to boost happiness, teaching and practicing this behaviour encourages a more positive outlook, leading it to become a happy habit.


Like any habit, long lasting happy habits are created from:


Learning a positive and healthy behaviour


Experiencing an emotional connection from doing the behaviour


Performing the behaviour over and over and over again until it becomes hardwired in our brains, bodies and beings


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