To Thrive we must Strive
1) grow or develop well or vigorously
2) prosper, flourish
Wouldn’t it be great if we could thrive as a matter of habit? When you stop and think about it, that’s the only way you can thrive. Let’s take a baby as an example.
When a baby is developing well, flourishing even, she doesn’t do so only for one day. Babies sleep, eat, poop, play and repeat the cycle a few times a day. It is silly to say an infant child thrives for just one day.
In order for the baby to grow into a happy child and, ideally, a happy adult, the habit of thriving must be established early. For unfortunate kids who don’t have consistency of nutrition, love, and protection, it can be tough to thrive.
When we grow up to adulthood ourselves, it’s easy to forget thriving is a habit. It’s not a herky-jerky affair marked by fits and starts. The program and process of VHAB is built to foster consistency. We created it to address self-destructive mental habits. If your serious setting your sails to find Thrive Island, VHAB will help you make way.
How to change, that’s the question. One of the most important steps you can take is defining your goal. Unfortunately, many people settle for far less than they could have if only they would change, and think more boldly.
So, I challenge you to set your goals high. If you’re going to take a closer look at your substance use, if you’re willing to be honest with yourself, examine the role of substance habits in your life, and do the hard work of building new mental habits, why not make the effort with thriving as your goal.
Anything short of vigorously developing well, or making some partway habit change, is only going to leave you dissatisfied. But what is the best way to set a goal and thrive? If you want to know how to change your mental habits, you’ve got to think from a global perspective
We’re not going to hit you with more definitions in this section. When I refer to global habits, I’m really getting at a new way of thinking for your whole life. Many people make the mistake of trying to change a mental habit in isolation. This usually goes poorly.
Let’s take an example from psychology research: decision fatigue. The concept is best addressed with a little story.
Imaging you’ve decided to go on a diet. I know, in real life you might not even to need to lose weight. But just pretend along with me for a moment. Say you’ve been home for a few weeks.
Maybe on summer vacation or a COVID-19 quarantine. I don’t know why you’re stuck at home, but to break out of the depression caused by your spare tire, you decide to cut back on the calories and shed some pounds.
You start fresh in the morning, leaving the sugar out of your coffee and skipping cereal in favor of a couple of high-protein eggs. Looking good so far. Lunch comes, and again you choose well. The soup and 1/2 sandwich instead of your usual double-cheeseburger with a side of fries, and you begin to feel the pounds melting away already.
Holding on task through an afternoon of snack cravings, you have a glass of water with a slice of lemon instead of ruining your calorie plan. You find the diet advice you received to be excellent and, targeting your “macros” a piece of grilled fish and and some steamed vegetables wraps up a perfect day of your new diet plan.
Then you put on some streaming TV, binge a couple episodes, and eat a pint of Hagen Dazs rocky road. Of course, I’ve never followed this pattern. 😉
Kidding. This is basically the anatomy of decision fatigue. Stanford researchers have confirmed how hard it is to stick with a new mental habit that requires multiple sequential decisions. We get tired of being good all the time.
Maia Szalavitz, author of the excellent book Unbroken Brain, wrote an article in Time in 2011 on the matter of decision fatigue. She concludes:
“Overall, the body of evidence suggests that it’s best to view willpower as something that can be strengthened like a muscle: hard work will improve your endurance and discipline. Believing in your ability to fortify your willpower will in turn help you persist.”
So if Maia is right, and I think she is, we have to cultivate willpower like we would any other skill. We get better at a sport or a at playing an instrument by practicing. It may be hard to admit, but if you have bad mental habits–ones you want to change–you also built those by repetition. As Will Durant said, “we are what we repeatedly do.”
So how do we get on the path of change so we’ll arrive at new mental habits?
Simple. We have to use what I call “the Four Gets.” Here we go.
Get Get Get Get
The four “gets” are exactly how to change mental habits.
Here they are so we can jump right in.
Get Clear, Get a Why, Get Away, Get a Guy (or Gal)
You have to be clear about the new mental habits you want to cultivate. In my experience, clarity and extreme precision of your desires are essential. Most people never even make it this far in the process. They set murky finish lines and never know if they’re getting closer to their new mental habits.
Take VHAB for example. A critical part of the process is clearly recording your alcohol and/or substance intake. A lot of times when a doctor asks a patient how much she drinks, she’ll respond with, “I drink socially.” People often minimize the amount of their alcohol intake because overdrinking is embarrassing to admit to another person.
This is understandable and, like all of us, we try to preserve our social status. Overdrinking looks bad so we fudge the truth when confronted. But like the Rocky Road example above, if we’re lying to ourselves about our habits, we’ve got no shot at changing them. Like Benjamin Franklin said, failing to plan is planning to fail.
You have to be clear about what you want and what you’re doing to accomplish it. I always feel uncomfortable committing to a specific course of action. I hate to give up the flexibility that clarity entails. But I love the results of picking, and sticking to a clear plan.
Get a Why.
As Nietzsche said:“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
I won’t bullshit you, this stuff is hard. If you’re reading an article on how to change mental habits, you already know it isn’t easy to stop cravings, self-sabotage, and regrettable behavior.
I used to think happiness was a life without struggle or difficulty. Smooth sailing, so to speak, was how you would know you were “doing it right.” I was naive. I’m sure this concept fed into my use of narcotics and alcohol. Bliss without struggle as utopian ideal.
Reality reveals life is hard. It’s difficult even if your parents paved the way with education, guidance and privilege. Even if you’re born in the greatest country on Earth, you speak the language, and you are of sound mind and body, making it from cradle to grave isn’t a pleasure cruise.
The Old German Philosopher hammers it home when he suggests the hard times are a requirement for a good life:
Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.
What’s the secret to making it through the hard parts? You need a reason why. I finally stopped using drugs because I didn’t want to die an overdosed drug addict. After countless experimentation, trial and error, I concluded quitting was the only way to survive. In order to quit, I needed a reason why. Self-respect was my ‘why’.
Get a Way
If you hang around the barber shop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut. This old expression I first heard in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. The message is simple: spend time in places where drinking alcohol is the norm, and eventually you’re likely to drink. Since A.A. people are trying to stay sober, they naturally advise their members to get away from situations that usually lead to drinking.
This applies to people as well. I had a core group of drinking buddies. Before I quit, we had a lot in common. After I gave up drinking, we had much less to discuss. I had to make a clean break from my regular bar and the routine, or habits, went with it.
Cues stimulate cravings. A lot of mental habits you don’t like are fostered by hanging around an environment associated with your old routine. It’s not just barflies at the rail. It’s the “reward at the end of the work day” in the form of an alcoholic drink. It’s also the Rocky Road ice cream in the freezer.
The secret: change your routine. Skipping the bar is a easy one. you can find healthier ways to burn off stress, such as a walk or a trip to the gym. You can also change your routine by keeping the ice cream (if that’s your guilty pleasure) out of your freezer. If you don’t bring it home from the store, it won’t beckon to you late at night.
Get a Guy (or Gal)
People who quit smoking with a friend are more than twice as likely to achieve their goal. Weight loss and fitness get a huge boost when you have someone to work out with. A gym buddy is an enormous help when you have trouble sticking with your commitment.
If you want to change your mental habits, you must have what I call and accountability partner. Someone who observes and even encourages you to stick with your plan can make the difference. It makes no sense why telling another person about your plans and goals should be so helpful. I have a feeling it is because we don’t want to lose status in the eyes of our friends.
If I promise myself I won’t eat a whole bag of Tate’s cookies, but nobody is there to check on me, I will have a rough time staying in control. Tate’s, especially the thin oatmeal raisin cookies, are made in a divine bakery somewhere. If the Greek Gods high up on Mount Olympus run out of Ambrosia, they grab a sack of Tate’s cookies.
But when I put them in a clear glass mason jar (with a flip lock), everyone can see if Dad went overboard on the cookies. Tate’s is smart: they sell their cookies in an opaque green package. Nobody can tell if you had one or a whole tray. The bad looks the same before and after, but the jar makes cookie nibbling public. Take this advice if you want help to find a new way of thinking.
Obviously, we don’t have cookie police at my house. But if the old man is hitting the cookies too hard, I’ll hear it from my wife or the kids. I mean, there it is: no hiding the truth.
In elementary school, when you went on a field trip, were you assigned a buddy? Sometimes the teacher will let the kids choose their own. Buddies are an extra pair of eyes and ears to each of you stays safe. They do the same thing in the Army, and we do the same thing in VHAB if you want to change a habit.
A.A. uses this concept for their “sponsors.” A sponsor isn’t someone who pays for your sports equipment. It’s another person who’s been through trying to quit drinking. Think of a sponsor in this context like a mentor. But I think anyone can be your accountability partner, because the key is your honesty. Not what your “gal” or “guy” tells you.