Breaking Bad Habits: What We Can Learn from Minotaurs, Seat Belts, and the Stoics

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, not just because Ariadne is my given name but because of the role of the thread in mythology and in our everyday lives. Theseus could be saved and be free to return to Athens only if he entered the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. All who had gone before him had perished, but Theseus, guided by the thread Ariadne had given him, was able to make his way into the labyrinth and come out of it alive and victorious. Ariadne’s thread is our way in and our way out. It connects this world with the other, the outer with the inner, mortality with eternity.

As we are liberating ourselves, building new habits, and slaying our old habits — our own Minotaurs — it is critical to find the thread that works for us. When we do, no matter what life throws our way we can use the thread to help us navigate the labyrinth of daily life and come back to our center.

For me, the thread is something as simple as my breath. I have worked to integrate certain practices into my day — meditation, walking, exercise — but the connection that conscious breathing gives me is something I can return to hundreds of times during the day in an instant. A conscious focus on breathing helps me introduce pauses into my daily life, brings me back into the moment, and helps me transcend upsets and setbacks. It has also helped me become much more aware when I hold or constrict my breath, not just when dealing with a problem, but sometimes even when I’m doing something as mundane as putting a key in the door, texting, reading an email, or going over my schedule. When I use my breath to relax the contracted core of my body, I can follow this thread back to my center.

As psychologist Karen Horneffer- Ginter asks: “Why are so many of us so awful at taking breaks? What is it about our culture and conditioning as adults that prevents us from stepping away from our seemingly important tasks in order to briefly recharge? . . . If I were to make up banners and flyers in support of the break movement, they’d have to speak to our tendencies to exhaust ourselves . . . to continue on past the point that’s really in our best interests, or even in the best interests of the project we’re working on.”

Habits are habits for a reason. Humans lead complex lives, and one of the traits we’ve developed that has allowed us to be such productive creatures is the ability to make many learned traits and responses an automatic part of our lives, buried so deeply in the inner workings of our subconscious that they no longer require conscious thought. As mathematician Alfred North Whitehead wrote in 1911, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Indeed, research by John Bargh of Yale and Tanya Chartrand of Duke suggests that the lion’s share of a person’s behavior is dictated by mental processes that aren’t conscious.

Some of these habits are useful and some are not. Some start out being useful and become destructive later on or in different contexts. But the internal machinery we’ve developed to create them doesn’t discriminate. And whether good or bad, once established, habits rapidly grow roots and entrench themselves in our lives. And that’s the problem — habits are a lot easier to learn than to unlearn, easier to bury than to exhume.

The puzzle of habits — of learning and unlearning them — has been a focus of humanity since the dawn of civilization. Of the Ten Commandments, several are about resisting bad habits, such as coveting, and some are about cultivating good habits, such as honoring your parents. To Aristotle, “Habit’s but a long practice,” which “becomes men’s nature in the end.” To Ovid, “Nothing is stronger than habit.” And as Benjamin Franklin put it, “ ’Tis easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.”

Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit that scientists at MIT have, in essence, mapped the habit genome. What they’ve found is that the nucleus of a habit is made up of a neurological loop, which has three parts. It begins with a cue that sends the message to the brain to switch on the automatic mode. Next comes the routine — what we think of as the habit itself, which can be psychological, emotional, or physical. And last is the reward, the cue that tells the brain to reinforce this process. This is the “habit loop,” and it’s easy to see why as time goes on it becomes more and more automatic, more and more difficult to break. Of course, our primary goal shouldn’t be merely breaking bad habits as much as replacing them with new, healthier habits that help us thrive.

The poet Mark Nepo defines sacrifice as “giving up with reverence and compassion what no longer works in order to stay close to what is sacred.” So recognizing when habits are no longer working for us and sacrificing them is a cornerstone of wisdom.

We might think we’re in charge of our thoughts and behavior — captains of our ship, turning the wheel this way and that — but so often it’s actually our autopilot that’s in control. It reminds me of the time a friend took a family trip on a cruise ship. Her ten- year- old son kept pestering the crew, begging for a chance to drive the massive ocean liner. The captain finally invited the family up to the bridge, whereupon the boy grabbed hold of the wheel and began vigorously turning it. The boy’s mother panicked — until the captain leaned over and whispered to her not to worry, that the ship was on autopilot; her son’s maneuvers would have no effect.

In the same way, if we’re not able to reprogram our autopilot, all our protestations of wanting to change will be as pointless as the little boy furiously turning the wheel on the cruise ship. Reprogramming the autopilot takes different amounts of time for each of us. What makes it easier is focusing on “keystone habits”; when you change one of them, it makes changing other habits easier. “Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything,” Duhigg writes. “Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.” For me, the most powerful keystone habit has been sleep. Once I changed the amount of sleep I was getting, and started regularly getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night, other habits, such as meditation and exercise, became easier. Willpower alone is not enough. As a number of psychological studies have shown, willpower is a resource that gets depleted the more it’s used.

Dr. Judson Brewer of Yale has summed up the common signs of resource depletion in the acronym “HALT,” which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. It also happens to be a good summation of the standard state of being for so many of us in our current workplace culture, which almost seems designed to create resource depletion. We work through mealtimes, don’t see our children, conduct most social contact electronically, and work late — that pretty much touches all four bases of HALT.

When the habits that lead to resource depletion are the very habits we’re incentivized to cultivate, it makes for a tough environment for change. “We get a sense of belonging that is important to us,” says Cindy Jardine, professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. “We can see ourselves as part of a social structure; it’s very hard to change a behavior if it is still accepted socially. For instance, stress is bad for us, yet we wear it as a badge of honor. It is seen as a socially desirable thing to be overworking. We don’t seem to have the same respect for people who work a 40- hour week.” This kind of thinking feeds on itself, creating a downward bad habit spiral.

This is all the more reason it’s important to create a positive keystone habit, to gain some leverage to take back our lives. And given that we’re social creatures, and that social support is one of our primary resources, it’s much easier to create and reinforce new, positive habits in a social network, with a group of friends or colleagues who can band together for mutual encouragement. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful and has helped an estimated ten million people to date. But even if the culture of your workplace still operates with the traditional definition of success, you can gather around you a group of like- minded people who want to thrive and not just “succeed.”

At the same time, we can work to change social culture and habits on a large scale. In 1984, 86 percent of the public did not wear a seat belt. By 2012 that number was flipped, with 86 percent of Americans buckling up. This is an example of an “upstream” intervention. Policies at the top can be changed — through laws, tax incentives, and the provision of services — that will gradually change habits on a wide scale. “Downstream” interventions are aimed directly at individuals and they are most effective when people are going through transitions, such as when moving or starting a new job.

But we don’t have to wait until we move or change jobs to change our lives. Nor do we have to wait for large- scale, upstream change. We can initiate change right now. There are endless starting points. For me, one of them was reading the Stoics.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded in Athens in the third century BC. Though Zeno of Citium is often credited with its founding, Stoicism is now more widely known through the work of the fi rst- century Roman philosopher Seneca and the second- century Greek Epictetus. Stoicism teaches that unhappiness, negative emotions, and what we would today call “stress” are not inflicted on us by external circumstances and events, but are, rather, the result of the judgments we make about what matters and what we value. To the Stoics, the most secure kind of happiness could therefore be found in the only thing that we are in control of — our inner world. Everything outside us can be taken away, so how can we entrust our future happiness and well- being to it?

Stoicism is hugely relevant to our time. “Stoicism took off because it offered security and peace in a time of warfare and crisis,” write Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, authors of a biography of the Stoic Cato the Younger. “The Stoic creed didn’t promise material security or a peace in the afterlife; but it did promise an unshakable happiness in this life.”

Around two centuries after Cato the Younger, one of Stoicism’s most famous practitioners — and philosophers — arrived, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned for nearly twenty years as the last of the so- called Five Good Emperors until his death in AD 180. Marcus Aurelius was a true paradox — an emperor with almost unlimited power to control his world and circumstances, who nevertheless had a deep understanding that happiness and peace do not lie in the outside world.

For Marcus Aurelius, the quality of our day is up to each one of us. We have little power to choose what happens, but we have complete power over how we respond. It all starts with setting the expectations that make it clear that no matter how much hardship we encounter — how much pain and loss, dishonesty, ingratitude, unfairness, and jealousy — we can still choose peace and imperturbability. And from that place of imperturbability — or ataraxia, as the Greeks called it — we can much more effectively bring about change. In the W. C. Fields movie Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Fields’s niece is about to throw a rock at someone. He tells her to count to ten. As she counts, she gets more and more relaxed. When she reaches ten, he tells her to throw, because now “you got a good aim!”

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius did not sugarcoat life: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”

Not a bad solution to road rage. Or rudeness at the supermarket. Or to the many travails of modern office life.

So much of the time, what is standing between us and satisfaction is . . . us. This isn’t to say we control whether we get that promotion, or how our kids are going to act, or if a relationship is going to work out. Nor is it saying that things like that are not important. It’s saying that we can control how much we’re controlled by things outside ourselves. So the first goal, as the first- century Stoic philosopher Agrippinus put it, is not to be “a hindrance to myself.” Or, in the classic comic strip Pogo’s famous turn of phrase, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

Stoicism is not just a tool for staving off unhappiness when we don’t get a much- desired promotion — it also teaches us to put that promotion and all our success in its proper perspective. Too often, Stoicism is confused with indifference, but it’s really about freedom. As Seneca said, “Once we have driven away all that excites or affrights us, there ensues unbroken tranquility and enduring freedom.”

Some might look at these practices as a luxury — that it’s all very well for emperors and the financially independent, for people who have their basic needs met and have what are known as “first world problems.” What about those without a job who are struggling to put food on the table? In fact, it’s in extreme circumstances that Stoicism has the most to offer us. It is in times of great adversity when we are pushed and challenged that these principles become essential.

Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor whose parents, brother, and pregnant wife all perished in the camps. What he took away from that unimaginable horror became the basis for his timeless book Man’s Search for Meaning. “We who lived in the concentration camps,” he wrote, “can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” To Frankl, “Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”

And what Frankl did with that freedom was to find meaning in his suffering, and, by extension, all suffering. “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering,” he wrote. “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

One of the great texts on the relationship of suffering, acceptance, wisdom, and transformation is the book of Job, which asks how we should respond when circumstances seem to be at their most unfair and capricious. In other words, what do we do when bad things happen to good people? Job, a wealthy farmer, was the subject of a debate between Satan and God. Satan believed that Job was faithful only because he was prosperous; if Job’s good fortune was removed, Job would renounce God. And so the two agreed to an experiment of sorts.

In short order Job’s livestock was destroyed, his sons and daughter were killed when the house they were in collapsed, and Job broke out in sores all over his body. But Job’s reaction was to proclaim, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord praised.” In the end, not only did God restore Job’s fortunes; he increased them. The message of the parable is that there is a hidden purpose — and alchemy — in suffering that’s transmuted into wisdom and strength.

As Francine and David Wheeler, who lost their six year-old son, Ben, in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, told Oprah, “The mistake is looking at life and thinking, ‘I have nothing, life has nothing left to give me because of my tragedy.’ And, you know, in our darkest moments, we have been there. Yes, but the key is it doesn’t really matter what you expect from life. And to be able to see that and accept that is a very important step to finding your way out of the dark. . . . You’ve got to make your heart bigger than the hole. You just have to make your decisions out of love. And when we make the decisions out of fear, that’s when we have problems.”

Nelson Mandela captured the imagination of the entire world, not because he was a political prisoner for twenty seven years who then became president, but because of the transcendent wisdom he demonstrated after his release: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Such equanimity and grace in the face of real suffering are in sharp contrast to the way we often react to the trivial challenges we let disturb us. The truth is that even in everyday adversity, the principles — though, of course, not the immediate stakes — remain the same.

How we respond to adversity can make a huge difference to our health and to our lives. Psychologist Salvatore Maddi and his colleagues at the University of Chicago studied more than twenty- five thousand employees of Illinois Bell Telephone, after the company was downsized 50 percent in one year in what was considered the largest upheaval in corporate history. “Two- thirds of our sample broke down in various ways. Some had heart attacks or suffered depressive and anxiety disorders. Others abused alcohol and drugs, were separated and divorced, or acted out violently. In contrast, a third of our employee sample was resilient. These employees survived and thrived despite the stressful changes. If these individuals stayed, they rose to the top of the heap. If they left, they either started companies of their own or took strategically important employment in other companies.”

What the researchers found is that those who were able to make the transition a success used, as they put it, the “three C attitudes.” First, there was commitment: deciding to join in and try to be a part of the solution. Next was control: fighting to maintain a sense of resolve as opposed to resignation. And last was challenge: finding ways to use the crisis to strengthen themselves, to build resilience and grow.

According to Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, when faced with life- threatening situations, 10 percent of us will stay calm, focused, and alive. The other 90 percent of us will panic. What’s the difference? Those who are most likely to survive, he says, are those who are able to find opportunity in the situation. For instance, they are more likely to see beauty around them. “Survivors are attuned to the wonder of the world,” he writes. “The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses.”

He cites the experience of Antoine de Saint- Exupéry, the aviator and author of The Little Prince. After his plane crashed in the desert in Libya, Saint- Exupéry kept calm by finding something to focus positive energy on. “Here we are, condemned to death, and still the certainty of dying cannot compare with the pleasure I am feeling,” he wrote. “The joy I take from this half an orange which I am holding in my hand is one of the greatest joys I have ever known.”

By finding something — anything — to enable us to keep the pathways of hope open and a positive attitude alive, we can deal with loss, suffering, and tragedy bit by bit. “Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes,” writes Gonzales. “Count your blessings. Be grateful — you’re alive.”

So, yes, it’s a blessing to be healthy. It’s a lucky thing if we live near a park or have access to the great outdoors. But no matter what our situation is, life will inevitably challenge us. What is important is to know that we have the inner tools to meet those challenges.

There is a big difference between stoic acceptance and resignation. Cultivating the ability to not be disturbed by our lives’ obstacles, disappointments, and setbacks doesn’t mean not trying to change what we can change. The serenity prayer, adapted from the one written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1942, sums up stoic wisdom: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

And the wisdom to know the difference comes from our ability to move from our narrow, self- absorbed world to a world that encompasses a larger perspective and a higher altitude. And it all starts with daily, tiny, positive changes that move us in the direction we want to go. Let me suggest three that have made a big difference in my life: 1. Listening to your inner wisdom, let go of something today that you no longer need — something that is draining your energy without benefiting you or anyone you love. It could be resentments, negative self- talk, or a project you know you are not really going to complete. 2. Start a gratitude list that you share with two or more friends who send theirs to you. 3. Have a specific time at night when you regularly turn off your devices — and gently escort them out of your bedroom. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you reconnect to your wisdom, intuition, and creativity. And when you wake up in the morning, don’t start your day by looking at your smartphone. Take one minute — trust me, you do have one minute — to breathe deeply, or be grateful, or set your intention for the day.

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 158–172