Habits are things we do as a matter of routine. Habits are formed when we do certain things repeatedly to the point we are able to carry them out almost involuntarily. Habits as a routine based on conscious choice vs. those we do routinely without a second thought – that is the point of our focus for this essay!
We do something. We like the outcome. We do more of the same. The response continues to be to our liking. We become “conditioned” to expect the outcome. Hence we continue to do the same thing each time the opportunity occurs. This sort of habit becomes involuntary and second nature. Such addictive behavior is not unique to human beings. In fact there is a famous experiment called “Pavlov’s Dog” that describes this manner of habit-forming ***.
In his experiment, Dr. Pavlov, a Physician by training has documented that the secretion of saliva by dogs is an involuntary response – a habit – as the dog anticipates the reward of a small piece of meal. Later this concept of “Conditioned Response” has been adapted and studied extensively by Psychologists. What Dr. Pavlov noticed further is even more profound! The dog ‘s salivating increased not only at the symptoms that the food is on the way, but even at the sight of the laboratory technician (who served the food during the experiments)! No wonder my appetite picks up at the sight of the favorite restaurant and the smell, well before the sight of the food!
Habits need not be merely limited to physical activities. We experience emotional response such as feelings, preference, likes, dislikes, etc. for reasons which go beyond material objects. We tend to like certain people and dislike others based on our emotional connection or bondage with them based on certain events. Then we look for such desirable connections. Over time they lead to our habitual like and dislike of people, places, connections, activities, etc. On the one hand one could argue that these “experiences” are what make us individuals. But, it is my view that such preferences, when they become “habitual” – without periodic reflection – over time lead to inalienable feelings of bias and prejudices as well.
Habits are also formed thanks to dogma. As an example we all know the dogma: “Hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil”. This is a guideline, as a deterrent for one to avoid engaging in evil acts. It is a good and desirable habit. One may not engage in evil acts, thanks to such dogma. But, if one does not have a clear view on the difference between good and evil, one could inadvertently condone evil acts by merely looking the other way simply being faithful to the dogma. Hence it appears to me that life should be a matter of conscious choice at every moment. While there is a benefit to put the life under “autopilot”, it should not become an excuse for the abrogation of responsibility for conscious choice when it matters, under the guise of “habit”. One could argue that deliberation and choice at every moment is challenging and tiring indeed! But, as we have discussed in earlier essays, the only thing or capacity that distinguishes us from all other species on earth is out ability to think, reason and hence make choices! So, giving up conscious choices in favor of falling back on habits appears to me is giving up of the unique capability that we are bestowed with as the unique species of nature!
But, habits can also be the seeds for reflection and deliberation on the larger aspects of life. There is one habit that my grandparents instilled in me in my early childhood. The habit was simple. Never kick anything by foot. They even instilled a sense of fear in me by suggesting that “God is everywhere, which includes the thing you kick! So, if you do not wish to incur the wrath of the Gods, do not kick anything”. Of course there were exceptions like the soccer ball in the playing field! That set me straight! Who wants to incur the anger of the all-powerful God, who is also invisible! I wanted to meet the God in my own terms and under peaceful circumstances!! But, as I grow older I am increasingly at ease with the view that even inadvertent slight of anyone or anything is not appropriate or acceptable. All of us are objects of nature, just like any other object of nature including the furniture in my room, the trees in the yard or the sand and the stone in the pile near the trees. All forms of life are equal and no one is inferior or superior than I am. Could I have arrived at this view on my own? Probably. But, I must admit that reflecting on the habit instilled in me by my grandparents and reflecting on it persistently , had a profound impact in my thought process.
There are other habits formed in us through what we learn at our early ages. Please see the Rules of the Road, from one of our earlier essays. https://sipractce.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/“ruled-of-the-road”-aathichudi/
Such moral education taught at the early life facilitates habits of sustained value. Parents as well as teachers play a crucial role in this evolutionary process in any community.
Habits are indeed powerful tools. They play a vital role to simplify our life by putting it on “cruise control”. But it may be valuable to challenge all our habits once in a while to understand the predicate behind the habits. While driving on the highway of life on cruise control, it will be wise for any one to tap on the break once in a while to be sure that one can regain control and that we drive the car and not the other way around!