I have had several converging experiences over the past week or three. I got laid off by an organization that has taken on the iterative practice of dealing with financial shortfalls by making cuts. I have been working with people who have the iterative practice of running away from traumatic childhood memories by using coping mechanisms like turning to addictions, or by proudly saying that there was nothing they could do about them. I have encountered all kinds of well-meaning Christian people who have avoided discomfort by saying, “I will pray for you” rather than taking a moment to actually sit with me and pray with me. After being exposed to these types of iterative behaviors for years (and occasionally doing them myself), I begin to see a type of gaping hole at the center of them. They do precisely the opposite of what they purport to do; they confront something uncomfortable and respond by turning away from a deeper freedom rather than exploring it more fully. In doing so, they move again into the unconscious and confining behavior. In other words, they become less free.  

Further, I have watched the January ritual of people giving up on New Year’s resolutions, whether they are about reading more, diet and exercise-related, sleep-related, or relationship related. In the season of New Year’s resolutions, people make hopeful, sincere resolutions to change. To lose weight, stop smoking, work out, and/or learn a new language or skill. However, research has found that only about 10% of people who make resolutions keep them. Indeed, the sports platform Strava documented over 800 million user activities and found the most common day people give up on their resolutions is the second Friday in January. The company calls this “Quitter’s Day.” In 2023, that was January 14th. Fortunately, whether it’s getting rid of bad habits, reforming your character, or improving your disposition, change is possible. Not only this, but an individual person impacting change on him or herself is absolutely necessary. 

This has crystallized for me in recent writing, including A Ritual Nurturing of Freedom, The Pathology of Doing Your Best, and the work I have done on Intellectual Humility, among others. Jordan Peterson, the focal point of such a firestorm of controversy over public comments on the mandating of non-binary gender pronouns in the province of Ontario, assumes that the agent can make changes on herself in his very helpful “12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos.” While there are a lot of philosophical disagreements with Peterson about the metaphysics of individual identity that I agree with, Peterson is right to assume that change is possible and desirable. Normally I would reach into the canons of philosophical literature to myopically take on Peterson, but I couldn’t do so without ignoring what might be called “individual character-virtue ethics” that includes such figures as Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine, Saint Thomas, and more recently, Simone Weil, the phenomenologists, and Alisdair MacIntyre.  

Instead, I would like to explore the seemingly more mundane and practical observations of people from education and business to articulate the important truths of what it takes to refine the virtuous development of ourselves as individuals.

William Damon, Professor of Education at Stanford University, and Wendy Wood, Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, share how to best implement meaningful, positive change that lasts a lifetime.

Yes, You Can Change

“We’re changing all the time. For example, we’re constantly adapting to new technologies,” says Wood. She is the author of the landmark book Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “The challenge is trying to make change happen just through willpower. We can all change in the short run and decide to go to the gym today and decide not to spend money. Be nice to our spouse. But making those stick is not easy.” 

Wood and her colleagues conducted a study showing that a stunning 43% of the time, people habitually repeat behaviors without thinking about what they are doing.

“They’re being cued by the context they’re in,” says Wood. “That is why we all stand in front of the refrigerator and open it regardless of whether we’re hungry or not. We don’t have an intent to do something, but we’re being cued by that context.”

“So often we try to change our behavior without thinking about how it’s sustained by the environments we live in, the physical locations in which behaviors occur. An environmental shift, a shift in our context, leads to changes in our behavior,” says Wood. 

You can structure your home environment to promote good habits. I recommend this to my students all the time by suggesting they clean up their study area and make it a more desirable place to be. In the United States, Wood explains, “People eat in all the rooms of the house. We don’t just limit it to the kitchen or the dining room. We tend to take food with us,” says Wood. “I spent a year in France, and I was always amazed that you go to public parks and other places where people congregate in Paris, there aren’t food trucks and people pushing ice cream all the time. The French don’t do everything while they’re eating. But we do.” So, if binging in front of the TV or in the car is your issue, make those zones no-eating areas.

Replace, Don’t Just Eliminate

“Rather than just abstaining from a behavior, it’s easier to have a substitute behavior,” says Wood. For example, knit in front of the TV instead of compulsively eating. Or read, paint, or learn a language.

Wood says it’s essential to repeat the new behavior in the same way each time because that’s how your brain starts to connect the context with the behavior. You want the context to be relatively stable. Successful recovering addicts in 12-step programs, as explored in Wood’s project Automated Self-Control: The Neuropsychology Of Developing Good Habits, understand that it’s not about just wrestling with bad habits but also building up good habits, like calling a sponsor and helping others.

Be patient with yourself. Wood says, 

“It takes at least several months of repetition for new behaviors to be performed habitually – activated without much thought or effort.”

Make New Habits Easy to Do

“Contexts have forces in them that make the behavior easy or difficult. And we call this difficulty friction,” says Wood. For example, you’re more likely to go regularly to a gym closer to home. Lay out your workout clothes the night before you go to the gym, so they’re easy to put on in the morning. The supermarket expression, “Eye-level is buy level,” links less friction to consumer spending.

Research on voting, for example, shows that the more “friction” regarding how long polls are open or the distance to a polling place, the less likely someone is to vote. But when we asked voters whether friction was important or not, they thought the most important thing in determining if someone voted was their commitment, their beliefs, their politics, and whether they thought voting was a civic duty. Wood says, “We believe that people are in charge of their own behavior. We all believe in human agency, but we tend to underestimate the role of the environment in driving that behavior or in shepherding it.”

The first step is to recognize those barriers, strategize, and then take steps to try to overcome those barriers. Using the voting example, possible actions are taking off an afternoon from work, getting a babysitter, checking out the bus route so that you can figure out a way to get to the polls, and making sure that you have an absentee ballot. “All these things are ways to try to counteract the friction,” Wood says. “What we need to do is to vote to keep voter access and to oppose voter suppression laws. And recognize that these are important.”  

Avoid Places That Trigger Old Habits

“Locations promote some behaviors and make others more difficult simply by how they’re structured,” says Wood. “You go to a bar, and the first thing that happens is a bartender asks you, what would you like to drink? And then you see other people around you with alcohol. It’s all structured to promote drinking.” After hearing this, I was reminded of the time I lost a lot of friends that I made in the pub because it turns out our friendships were not strong enough to overcome the gravitational force of the alcohol in the middle of them.

So, if you’re an alcoholic, don’t go into a bar. If you’re a compulsive eater, don’t work at a bakery; if you used to binge at a specific fast-food restaurant, drive a different route so you don’t pass it. If you’re a compulsive shopper, unsubscribe from store emails, turn off store text notifications on your phone, and turn off one-step easy-payment methods.

Assess Your Virtues 

“I think people can change and do change, and people sometimes change for the better, and some people change for the worse,” says William Damon, one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose, morality, and education, who with Anne Colby co-authored the book The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice.

Habits are regularly practiced routines and actions that are hard to give up and contribute to character traits. “Character is a collection of virtues that define a person’s moral identity. Virtues are basically character strengths. And character is the collection of all those character strengths you’ve developed over your lifetime,” says Damon. At this point, we should be reminded of Charles Taylor’s work, Sources of the Self, and his easy-to-read breakdown of the philosophy of self in The Malaise of Modernity. These virtues are not developed in isolation – and to be reminded of this fact is to work against the metaphysical orientation of Jordan Peterson, but not against Peterson’s more helpful intuition that change is possible. 

There are dozens of virtues, including compassion, courage, curiosity, diligence, fairness, generosity, gratitude, honesty, humility, integrity, joyfulness, justice, kindness, loyalty, love, open-mindedness, perseverance, and unity. “All of these strengths are distinct,” says Damon. “They all have their own root and development, and they’re not necessarily always connected.”  

Someone may be very courageous, but that doesn’t mean they will be truthful. There is also moral character to consider. Diligence is a valuable performative trait, but you can be diligent for a bad cause. Moral character implies both a dedication to noble goals and a commitment to act in a manner consistent with one’s beliefs. The authentic moral character sees the integration of the two as an individual being and becoming an individual in large part because of the contexts out of which they have emerged.   

Eranda Jayawickreme and Will Fleeson’sWhole Trait Theory” helps explain the tension between having a “consistent” personality and yet acting differently in different contexts. One can change by habituating behaviors in one context and gradually focusing on shifting that behavior in new contexts. For example, you can work on not yelling at the kids when driving them to school by posting reminders in the car where you can see them just before driving. Then use similar strategies to work on not yelling at them at dinnertime.

The number one predictor of someone who can positively change “is being actively open-minded, which is a virtue. It’s a character strength. Listening to what other people say, listening to feedback about yourself, that’s part of being a good listener,” says Damon, adding that this doesn’t mean blindly listening to feedback. Constructive criticism is palpably different from mean-spirited attacks. 

“The second part is being rigorously honest with yourself, self-reflective, open-minded about your weaknesses and failures and not denying them, not trying to rationalize them or pretend that you never make mistakes or you’re always in the right.” I think of my well-meaning Christian friends again saying, “I will pray for you.”

The Possibility of Moral Development, Take Action

“I’m opposed to the idea that there are bad people or good people. I think it’s important to make moral judgments, but not about a person. It’s about action,” says Damon adding not to give up hope, even though there are people who do horrible things. “I think it’s a matter of faith. As long as that person is still alive, there is the potential that they can redeem themselves, that they can change,” says Damon. “It’s a good start to say, ‘I’m not a bad person, but I’m doing things that are not right.’ But then a person really needs to practice the right course of action, and that’s easier said than done.” While I would never be so presumptuous to say that “we can redeem ourselves”, redemption is still possible. 

“People often get discouraged if they skip a day or take some time off from a habit,” says Wood. “But the memory trace will still probably be there when you get back to repeating that behavior. So, you can think of yourself as still being a step up in forming the habit. You’re not back to the beginning. So, start back where you were when you left off, and you can pick up and keep working on it.”

“If you have maintained a new behavior for a year or two, I would say you should congratulate yourself because you’ve figured out something that you can persist for quite a while,” says Wood. “It’s a great thing… don’t take the system you have in place for granted.” The distinctly Anglo-American predilection and passion for reinventing ourselves can be put to good use. Change for the better. Yet, we need to be careful – performative authenticity lurks and is a dangerous temptation.

The lingering doubt, of course, is the presence of the contentious metaphysical assumption: an individual can redeem themselves. This, of course, overlooks the social contexts of mass society and technological rationality that lay waiting to force us back into our bad habits. 

In this regard, I can share one old Buddhist story that may help us get some distance from our ingrained habits of negative self-talk or wishful thinking. 

Trains of Thought

Imagine you are waiting at a train station. You are waiting to try to get on the train of thought that leads to the destination of effective freedom and the path of virtuous moral development. As you are waiting, many trains pass by the station. Some of them are filled with negative self-talk (e.g., “I can never be redeemed”) or wishful thinking (e.g., “A new job will solve all my problems”). Some people waiting at this station will be tempted to, will get on, one of those trains of thought. After getting on those trains, they will be taken far away from the original station where the individual was waiting. After realizing the train they got on was not the train they needed to get on, they will exit the train, and make the long trip back to the original station. After doing this many times, they become exhausted and set themselves on waiting for the actual train that leads them to effective freedom and moral development. In the process of this pattern of poor judgment, they will eventually come to realize that the original station they were in is, in fact, a holy place – and it is indeed within each person. 

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