Recently, dropping in on a singleton friend uninvited one evening, (not something I often do I hasten to add!) I was impressed to see her table beautifully laid for one, gleaming cutlery with a side plate, a snowy white linen napkin, a glass of wine and a candle to complete the setting.
I always lay the table properly, my friend said airily when I asked if it was a special occasion, it’s a habit of mine. And a very good one I decided later as, slouched on the sofa I ate my supper on a tray as I watched the latest Annabel & Grace recommendation on the tv. One definition of a ‘bad habit’ is that it is a recurring action that gives instant satisfaction but can have long term negative consequences. Nothing wrong with having the tv on I hear you say, but I identify my tv supper as a bad habit because I pay more attention to the tv screen than the food I am eating, and apart from the slouching being bad, this could lead to mindless over eating.
In my defence, it’s a habit only adopted since being widowed, but I wondered how many other so-called bad habits many of us share, the reason, if any, behind them and how one might change.
The theory is that a bad habit comes about to fulfil a need or provide relief. So it’s easy to deduce that my tv supper is a way of dealing with a time of day when as a younger mother and wife I used to juggle cooking, bedtimes and homework pressures, along with the chaos, noise and conversation that went with family life. I still enjoy cooking and eating, but the tv definitely fills a gap where conversation used to be.
Thinking more broadly about bad habits, research suggests they take on average sixty-six days to form. To break a bad habit first you need to identify it, and then try to avoid it for between 21-28 days, rewarding yourself at the end. Apparently, this method has a high success rate.
Happily, I don’t bite my nails and I am pretty careful about not ordering too many unnecessary things online, two obvious bad habits, however, mobile phone behaviour is high on my list of bad habits.
Am I alone? Confess, have you ever taken a sneaky look at your phone while waiting at a traffic light? Or read a text while walking down the street? Mad, bad and dangerous – I plead guilty to both. When mobiles first appeared, they were merely a convenient means of communication and texting gave us the opportunity to connect easily to old friends, giving us much pleasure. But now, a recent study showed a large number of people say they would prefer a broken bone than a broken phone, and 70% of people questioned reported panic and depression at the thought of losing it. So what happened? And why have we become so attached and formed such bad habits? One answer lies in the dopamine rush we get when we receive a text or email from a friend, in other words a happy feeling. Dopamine is designed to give us pleasure. It’s a type of neurotransmitter and hormone and is part of the brain’s reward system. A dopamine rush can be triggered by sex, eating and now, more troublingly, mobile phones.
Mobile phones give us the feeling of being connected to the world and we hope, fulfils our deep psychological need to maintain relationships. Ironically, it’s not unusual to see couples staring at their phone screens, even in restaurants. Phones are no substitute for real relationships but personally I have been guilty of sneaking a look when my phone pings even when with a friend, (although I find it deeply irritating when friends do the same thing!) One way to identify your own bad habits is to notice other people’s.
But some bad habits are less obvious and deeply ingrained. A friend remarked the other day that she liked the shirt I was wearing. This old thing I said, I’ve had it for years, actually I think it makes me look a bit fat. Why can’t you take a compliment she said crossly, and thinking about this later I wondered why I hadn’t simply accepted the compliment and thanked her. In brushing it away, I both denied myself the pleasure of someone saying something nice to me, made us both feel awkward and took away any good feeling she had in paying it.
So, armed with this new insight into my less than perfect self, I have a list of intentions in order to break at least some of my bad habits. I shall try not to look at my phone in company or in the car or in the street and I all compliments shall be gratefully received.
Having got that off my chest, I shall now enjoy supper with a glass of wine. However, I’m afraid it will still be on a tray, and I shall still sit on the sofa, and I shall still watch Eastenders as I eat. But, as a concession to my new good intentions, I will also light a candle. Some bad habits are simply too enjoyable to give up.
You can read more from Alexandra Wilson here
Photo by Karolina Grabowska.