The Power of Habit and Alcoholics Anonymous

“the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change.”
― Charles Duhigg

Another recommended read: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Multiple sections deserve coverage, but among numerous insights, Charles Duhigg uses Alcoholics Anonymous as a tested example of cultivating powerful lasting change. Researchers have been studying AA for years to uncover the reasons underlying its success.

“AA, in essence, is a giant machine for changing habit loops. And though the habits associated with alcoholism are extreme, the lessons AA provides demonstrate how almost any habit—even the most obstinate—can be changed.”

This section of Duhigg’s book correlates with the Boston AA chapter in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so I’ve included some quotes in italics to keep it interesting.

But first, the Duhigg habit loop. He breaks it down into three simple steps: “there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”


“Normally a gifted cynic, with a keen bullshit-antenna, Gately needed over a year to pinpoint the ways in which he feels like Boston AA really is actually sub-rosa dogmatic. You’re not supposed to pick up any sort of altering Substance, of course; that goes without saying; but the Fellowship’s official line is that if you do slip or drift or fuck up or forget and go Out There for a night and absorb a Substance and get all your Disease’s triggers pulled again they want you to know they not only invite but urge you to come on back to meetings as quickly as possible.”

Habits cannot be eradicated, according to Duhigg, but they can be replaced by identifying our daily cues, routines, and rewards. “Habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted,” he explains.

“when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it—how can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?—but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told.”

At its core, the “old guys” know, there is more to habit formation. Duhiggs explains researchers at the Alcohol Research Group in California interviewed individuals in AA and noticed a pattern. “Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold. The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.”

Researchers worked to approach this secret ingredient more objectively. “It was belief itself that made a difference,” Duhiggs explains. “Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives.” Similar studies correlated. “Belief seems critical,” said Tonigan, a University of New Mexico researcher. “You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better.”

“If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs—and becomes automatic—it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable.”

Another key element: belief emerges with the help of a group.

“Identify means empathize. Identifying, unless you’ve got a stake in Comparing, isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own…”

“that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.”

“You have to want to take the suggestions, want to abide by the traditions of anonymity, humility, surrender to the Group conscience. If you don’t obey, nobody will kick you out. They won’t have to. You’ll end up kicking yourself out, if you steer by your own sick will.”

Duhiggs goes to great lengths explaining a simple truth: we all possess the power to transform through habit. Deliberate effort eventually becomes automated response—it’s a matter of repetition, conviction, and support—just like fully comprehending Infinite Jest will eventually feel automatic after hours of reading, right? TBD on that.

Featured image (book cover design) and Habit Loop illustrations by Anton Ioukhnovets. Copyright © 2012 by Charles Duhigg. 

The Book of Joy: Ambition versus Stress and Anxiety

I recently finished The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World featuring a dialogue led by Douglas Abrams with the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu. The focus was on the topic of joy in the face of life’s challenges. Instead of a writing a review (although I’d recommend the read), I’m highlighting a topic touched on by the two men in conversation: stress and anxiety.

“Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition,” claims the Dalai Lama. “When we don’t fulfill  that expectation or achieve that ambition,” he explains, “we experience frustration. Right from the beginning, it is a self-centered attitude.”

It’s precarious to be unrealistic about objective reality. “When we have a clear picture about our own capacity, we can be realistic about our effort,” the Dalai Lama says. “But unrealistic effort only brings disaster. So, in many cases our stress is caused by our expectations and our ambition.” It is better to focus on presence of mind.

The decentering effect is the result of a rational shift from unrealistic expectations and discrete self-identity to identifying as one of seven billion humans—nothing special. The Dalai Lama articulates, “I have tried to make people aware that the ultimate source of happiness is simply a healthy body and a warm heart.”

This typically contradicts American thinking. In The Courage to Be Yourself: E.E. Cummings on Art, Life, and Being Unafraid to Feel, Maria Papinova writes, “Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs.” She goes on to define a “Pavlovian system” as learned conformity, “in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.”

Papinova also cites the poet Laura Riding, who writes in the exquisite letters to an eight-year-old girl about being oneself, “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

I’m trying to resolve these conflicting viewpoints. If fighting for the true self is to be the quintessential lifelong pursuit, then what could too much ambition possibly look like? Abrams points out that, to someone raised in America, “ambition is a virtue in and of itself: the marriage of initiative and persistence.”

“The getting and grasping that we see as our major ambition in modern life,” Abrams continues, “might be misguided. Perhaps it is a question of priorities,” he offers. “What is it that is really worth pursuing? What is it we truly need?”

It’s all much simpler than we think.

Life is a barrage of paradoxes. I have no doubt that we are creatures of conformity, products of the “Pavlovian system.” This is, as the Dalai Lama would say, a realistic picture of our human capacity. What is most important, then, is not to work against the current of conformity (inevitably falling victim to the stress and anxiety of our expectations and ambitions), but to live ensuring that the current flows the right way.

We are agents of exceptional human change by accepting ourselves as unexceptional humans capable of change. There is no such thing as a true self—there is only a collective humanness that we experience every moment of our lives. Humans have the capacity to redirect the current of conformity, but we can’t do it alone.

“When we see how little we really need—love and connection—then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our wellbeing takes its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or obsession of our lives. We must be conscious of how we live.”

– Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy

Featured image (book cover photograph) copyright © Miranda Penn Turin. 

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

omni“Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”

A thoughtfully written exploration on our evolution of food consumption and the modern burden of choice. Pollan argues that without a consistent culture to work as the trusted monitor for what we eat, we—namely, Americans—find ourselves at the mercy of faddish, contradictory marketing backed by slanted research.

“It is very much in the interest of the food industry to exacerbate our anxieties about what to eat, the better to then assuage them with new products.”

The food industry has worked relentlessly to feed our increasing demands for speed and affordability and Pollan goes to great lengths exposing the true price of this “industrialized” food.

“The fact that the nutritional quality of a given food (and of that food’s food) can vary not just in degree but in kind throws a big wrench into an industrial food chain, the very premise of which is that beef is beef and salmon salmon. It also throws a new light on the whole question of cost, for if quality matters so much more than quantity, then the price of a food may bear little relation to the value of the nutrients in it.”

This books confirms everything we might suspect but don’t want to acknowledge about our poor food choices and eating habits. It’s worth taking an honest assessment of what (and how) we eat, even if it’s uncomfortable knowing the real price of our convenience.

A solid take-away for me was shifting my focus on buying local (even over organic) food products. Supply meets demand and it makes sense to support local farming opposed to the unsustainable (albeit cheap) monoculture/destructive corn-feeding practices of the large-scale industry.

“Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and ‘value’ or they can nourish a food chain organized around values—values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote—a vote for health in the largest sense—food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.”

Some worthy highlights: 

“…always living on less than you have and more lightly than you need to.”

“It’s all very Italian (and decidedly un-American): to insist that doing the right thing is the most pleasurable thing, and that the act of consumption might be an act of addition rather than subtraction.”

“Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.”

“Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.”

“Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.”

“A successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore.”

“We are not only what we eat, but how we eat, too.”

Review: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head by Dan Harris

“Everything we experience in this world goes through one filter—our minds—and we spend very little time bothering to see how it works.” – Dan Harris

Summary: 10% Happier is the skeptic’s candid introduction to the science behind mindfulness and argues meditation is a reasonable solution for letting go of the stress in your life through acknowledging the illusions built up around your ego.

As an ABC News correspondent going through minor drug abuse and unacknowledged PTSD from reporting in a war zone, Dan Harris was finally forced to consider inward reflection after having a panic attack on live national television. His desire to resolve this inner anxiety led him on a journey of meditation and mindfulness and eventually a life—he argues—lived at least 10% happier.

#1 take-away: Be Simple, not a simpleton—why letting go of your ego won’t make you a push-over.

“One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive—and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them.”

Here’s Dan’s interesting self-sabotage insight: We think our ego and the anxiety it provokes creates the competitive edge that drives us. For many of us, the fear of practicing meditation is that in doing so we become the world’s doormat. Without our ego, we’d be passive, detached, even nihilistic.

You know the type, right? The people who offer no resistance—who allow others to cut them off in conversation, who don’t insist on getting their order right, and who absorb tasteless comments without reprove.

This isn’t practicing mindfulness or letting go of the ego. Rather, the tendency is to act like a simpleton in order to avoid necessary conflict. It’s like having a paradoxically humble ego that is affirmed by acting selfless and detached, inevitably building into this false impression of ourselves that needs to be maintained, even by negative external cues.

“Don’t confuse letting go with going soft. Just because you’re aware of what is going on and being mindful about it does not mean you just let things go when you have the ability to take action on them and improve. The way to respond to adversity is often to work through it, not to avoid it altogether in the name of acting Zen.”

#1.5 take-away: Harris offers, “When necessary, hide the Zen.” We don’t have to walk around acting like neutralized Zen zombies. It’s fine to strive for success, as long as we accept the outcome is out of our control. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t solve our problems, it enables us to act—rather than react—when faced with daily stress and conflict.

“Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.”

“’Is this useful?’ It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my ‘price of security’ motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan […]—but only until it’s not useful anymore.”

Conclusion: Dan Harris was a true skeptic of meditation and practicing mindfulness. The book is his honest confession that, having given meditation a fair chance, he can actually feel its benefits throughout his daily life and his career in the news industry. Mindfulness is such a simple concept—it’s heightened common sense. If you’re open to a new perspective on understanding how our brains work, I’d recommend this as a good place to start. It’s a light read and offers some applicable insights into the mysterious world of mindfulness. Harris is definitely a journalist—his writing is not only good, it’s downright fun.

Other highlights:

“But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.”

“All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.”

“When I opened my eyes, I had an entirely different attitude about meditation. I didn’t like it, per se, but I now respected it. This was not just some hippie time-passing technique […] It was a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands. Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeatedly hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of the inner onslaught required genuine grit. This was a badass endeavor.”

“At the end, the meditator arrives at the true goal of Buddhist meditation: to see that the “self” that we take to be the ridgepole of our lives is actually an illusion.”

“in a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last.”