“I’ve lived in the village all me life“, the plumber proudly told me as he fixed my blocked drain. He went on to tell me how he went to the pub Friday night, shopping on Saturday afternoon, and did the garden on a Sunday. The ambit of his life was restricted to just a few streets, his world encompassing a daily shuttle between the pub, local shop, and local residents' homes when they needed plumbing or odd-jobs doing. Most evenings (apart from Friday) were spent in front of the television with his wife and the biggest decision they had to make each day was what to have for dinner. His was a quiet life of comfortable habit.
In the Biology of Desire, neuroscientist Marc Lewis studies how habits form. “Habit“, he says, is one of those words we bandy about rather too casually. We think of habits as mild preferences or chosen routines, nothing we need to commit to – and certainly nothing that binds us. But the brain does not comprehend habit quite so loosely. The more we repeat a behaviour that gives us pleasure or comfort, the more defined become the neural pathways activated by that behaviour. Think of the brain as a snooker table, says Lewis. The more ingrained a habit becomes the deeper the groove it chisels into the brain’s surface until the neurons that respond to it form a trough, like the table’s pocket, which exerts the neurological equivalent of strong gravitational pull. Habits are addictions, says Lewis. Neurologically speaking, there is nothing to tell them apart.
People clearly can and do change. We are changed by traumatic experiences: Divorce, bereavement, illness. So, perhaps the more interesting question is not to ask if we can change, but if we can direct change. Can we consciously create a new version of ourselves?
We’ve all heard the Jesuit saying “give me the child at seven, and I will show you the man“. Yet as adults we laugh at our youthful delusions and forgotten goals. The principle traits that characterise us can and do shift. In general, people become more agreeable and less open to experience as they grow older. People who’ve spent small lives can become more neurotic; those who’ve been open to new ideas and experiences become more extrovert.
The cost we ought to be thinking about is what happens if we don’t change? If we don’t embrace change we stagnate and lapse into emotional arrest. We cease even trying to jump the hurdles that life places in front of us. For those of us that have life left in our years rather than years left in our life we have to learn that change is the principle of life.
The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we expose ourselves to new experiences.
“It’s only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform.” Roy T. Bennett.
If you would like help changing a habit or transforming part of your life, or maybe give a special gift to someone, check out my mentoring offer here.