‘Why is it that we wait until our 30s or older until we start to learn and become curious about habits?’ I said to my wife last night… ‘isn’t funny that within several of our friendship groups we have all started exploring self-help books around the same time… I wish someone would have explained it to me sooner!’
During the lockdown period, like many other people, I decided this could be a great opportunity to focus on developing some healthy habits. So, I hit the ‘healthy lockdown Sadie’ mission hard and meditated, exercised, did yoga, listened to podcasts and read books… for about 6 weeks. Then I begin a rapid decline back to my old ways of not doing those things, or at least only doing them sporadically. My motivation to make these changes had been spurred by some recent health issues, as well as reading books such as Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This motivated me in so far as understanding that the mind and body are connected, and I’d felt first hand the physical manifestations of stress; indeed, my body tends to be the thing that gives out first during stressful times. Anticipating a period of high stress and uncertainty, I wanted to try and get ahead of things, and keep my mind and body in a stable (as possible) state. So even though I wasn’t able to continue these habits with the intensity that I had hoped, I was kind to myself because I understood that my brain was in survival mode, and that meant letting go of expectations and being kinder in my thoughts about myself and what I was capable of at this time. One of the things that helped me to be a little kinder was a Tim Feriss podcast episode with sports psychologist, Dr Michael Gervais. It was discussed in a slightly different context, but the idea that remains transferable is that “we get overrun by external stimulus telling us how we should look, how we should think, how we should… That should-ing all over oneself creates shame and smallness.” This really resonated with me and the inner dialogue that I’d been having with myself about many things during lockdown… ‘I should wake up earlier’, ‘I should do more work if I’m working from home’, ‘I should be using this time more productively’, ‘I should get fitter’, etc, etc. It’s not that there isn’t some value in some of these thoughts, exercising for example really would make me feel better, but in framing it in a ‘should’ sentence, what automatically ensued was a feeling of shame for ‘under-achieving’ and a feeling that I was always falling behind.
To bring back the definition of wellbeing that I have drawn upon in my previous blog posts, Davis (2019, p. 1) defines wellbeing as “the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and ability to manage stress.” One journal article that I would like to bring into this discussion is by Gireesh, Das and Viner (2018) and their paper ‘Impact of health behaviours and deprivation on well-being in a national sample of English young people’. The authors describe a wide range of factors that contribute to adolescent wellbeing which include cognitive and relational factors such as family structures, bullying and relationships, support from peers and school connectedness. Additional behavioral factors also had an influence on wellbeing and included fruit and vegetable consumption, alcohol and drug use, sleep duration, physical and leisure time activity, and sedentary behaviours (See Gireesh, Das and Viner, 2018 for references pertaining to these different areas for more information). The authors explain that (UK based) policy initiatives have tended to target cognitive and relational factors such as developing resiliency, and have not really paid due attention to non-psychological modifiable factors that relate to lifestyle behaviours such as sleep, exercise and reading. The study concluded promoting healthy sleep, reading and healthy eating behaviours may be important future targets for wellbeing-based policies for young people.
This led me to thinking about the importance of helping students to understand the formation of habits and their inherently fluctuating nature when it comes to issues of wellbeing. In my experience ‘habits’ are often taught in relation to ‘study habits’ which are aimed mostly at examination year groups. This leads me to question why it is that we only teach habits to help students prepare to cope with periods of ‘expected stress’ (the impending doom of exams) which has a clear start and end (study leave, followed by exams, followed by exam results coming out). There is a clear motivation to establish good habits during this time, but could we work with students more effectively to guide them in developing intrinsic motivation for their own wellbeing? The other context when it comes to discussions about habits is the ‘you should do, x, y and z… it will make you feel better’, most commonly when it comes to learning about healthy eating or exercise at school. It’s not that this is wrong, but I would argue that perhaps this is encouraging the same (well-meaning but unintentional) shaming and bullying inner dialogue that we continue to suffer with as adults.
My question is rather than ‘should-ing’ on students as well as ourselves, could we help to educate them with the tools of how to develop habits, and then empower them to explore and research what habits might be useful to them (and why/how) in helping with their own wellbeing – especially during this period of great uncertainty? Perhaps it’s better to instill good habits early, and encourage students to experience this for themselves now, then have them reach for books on habits in their 30s or beyond, searching for the answers they didn’t get at school.
I’d love to hear from any schools that have explored habit formation and wellbeing with their students – please send a message or write a comment if you would like to share.
References (and mentions)
Davis, T. (2019). What Is Well-Being? Definition, Types, and Well-Being Skills. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/click-here-happiness/201901/what-is-well-being-definition-types-and-well-being-skills
Gireesh, A., Das, S., & Viner, R.M. (2018). Impact of health behaviours and deprivation on well-being in a national sample of English young people. BMJ Paediatrics Open [Online], 2(1).
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Group.
The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Michael Gervais (#256) https://tim.blog/2018/05/30/the-tim-ferriss-show-transcripts-michael-gervais/
*Interesting blog post on habits and education – https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2019/01/27/helping-students-maintain-habits-encouraging-persistence-with-behavioural-psychology/