Science and the wisdom of the ages both agree that one of the keys to being happy is to keep things fresh in life to get in touch with novelty. For a long time I’ve been a morning cup of coffee kind of guy, but to shake things up a bit I decided to switch to tea. On a recent walk, I passed by a café that I’ve stopped into in the past for a cup of coffee and in that moment I learned a valuable lesson that unveiled a key to kicking bad habits.
In the field of addictive behaviors there is a lot of discussion around three core components of habits; triggers, cravings and urges.
Another way to think of a trigger is some cue in your environment. It could be anything, the arches of McDonalds, a memory of drinking coffee with a friend, seeing someone smoking a cigarette, or passing by an old favorite clothing store.
In a past post called The Neuroscience of Bad Habits I wrote about how this cue works on our brains:
(Dr. Nora Volkow head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse) says that images also affect the rise of dopamine in our brains. So if we pass a McDonald’s and see the arches, our brain associates that with a tasty hamburger (for some) and shoots up dopamine. That good feeling will unconsciously drive the motivation to go in and get a Big Mac. It’s a conditioned response.
When I passed by that café I witnessed an entire reaction occur within me. First I was aware of some really nice thoughts about being in the café and relaxing with a cup of coffee. Then another thought followed, “I can always start this shift later.” Then there was a pull in my body as it turned toward the café.
I can only attest it to my mind being primed to notice how we react to cue’s that I was able to step into a space of awareness or mindfulness and watch this reaction with curiosity. In that moment I shifted from the dopamine drive toward the café to actually being excited about what I was witnessing.
It’s entirely different to know how this works intellectually than to have the experience of it. In fact, it’s a different area of the brain that is activated when we’re just thinking of something versus having an experience of it.
I also notice a part of me looking forward to exploring the tea world and I understand this is an experience that is also connected to feeling good. This is not to say eventually I won’t go back to having a cup of coffee again, as a cup a day is not really an unhealthy habit, it’s just for the purpose of creating novelty in life.
There are opportunities all around us to break out of old habits and seek novelty in life. This world is incredible with so many options that we’re often unaware of because our brains feel comfortable with routine.
But remember Abraham Joshua Heschel’s quote: “Life is routine and routine is resistance to wonder.”
You might consider sleeping on the other side of the bed, trying out meditation, starting a garden, switching coffee brands, picking up guitar, cooking, switching music or radio stations on the commute, or just choosing to smile more often.
Life is a great experiment, so make the choice to go play, seek novelty and allow your experience to guide you toward what matters.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Cup of coffee photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 5 Sep 2012