Did you see that meme with Jesus leaving the empty tomb? It said, “Jesus saw his shadow, and behold, there would be 6 more weeks of Lent.” It’s apropos of Easter in 2020.
COVID-19 has forced ongoing Lenten-like discipline on us all even as we enter Eastertide. Instead of family celebrations, church fellowship, even the beginning of the spring sports seasons, we get 6 or 10 more weeks—only God knows how many—of distancing ourselves physically from one another.
So what should we do? After exhausting all umpteen seasons of our favorite Netflix series, how do we make good on our remaining days under quarantine?
Let me suggest some Lent mixed in with a healthy dose of Easter. Let’s work on new disciplines that leverage the “friction” of social distancing so that they endure longer than a New Year’s resolution or the typical 40 days of Lent. And to help, this week we will dive into an evergreen topic—the scientific study of habits.
The Science Behind Good Habits
Definitions are a good place to start. A habit is understood to be those things we do automatically and unconsciously, like driving for many of us. Or, more personally, I didn’t realize I never completely closed the drawers of my dresser until my wife pointed it out. It was a habit and it took conscious attention to even recognize it, like an emergency siren that suddenly makes drivers conscious of nearby cars. Psychologist Wendy Wood found that “43 percent of ordinary actions are repeated almost every day in the same context”—that is to say, habits. Interesting side note: parents with kids at home have less habits than others because kids are known to interrupt even our unconscious actions.
When it comes to habit formation, there are at least two approaches we might consider—we can try to break a bad habit (and close the drawers), or, create a new one. It turns out the latter may be the best approach. How we do each, however, is quite similar.
Many of us have an impression that we change habits—good or bad—by sheer willpower. We have the self-control to resist the cake in the refrigerator or to go to the gym not just in January, but year round. But research suggests willpower is probably not enough.
How Do We Create New, Better Habits?
Wood uses the concept of friction to help us think about it. Friction makes our unconscious habits conscious, thus making it easier to change a bad habit. Likewise, removing friction can makes it easier to automate good habits. Let me explain what this means with a few practical examples from this Hidden Brain podcast. A building might hide elevators from view and lead folks to a stairwell with amazing views. There is no friction to taking the stairs but you have to think about where the elevators are located. Likewise, if the gym is too distant (or if you don’t like gyms), you won’t go. If it is closer, or you can work out in a setting that you like, it is much easier to stick with it.
Rewards are another key aspect of forming new habits. Our brains already reward habits, often short-term through the release of dopamine (it happens in smoking or gambling). So any new habit needs a good reward. For example, you might exercise while watching your favorite program (a Northwestern game would work for me) or add a Sunday indulgence if you eat healthy the rest of the week (Ben & Jerry’s?)
Other ways to encourage good habits (or discourage bad ones) include changing the environment. A change in scene can make a difference. Or you might leverage accountability. The latter is well-known in Christian community—a small group or accountability partner can motivate change we cannot make on our own.
Why does this work? Well, repeated behaviors become habits when they are ingrained in our brains. Remember how much effort and attention it took to drive when you first learned. But if you stuck at it, it became habitual. Same with sports—you practice the baseball swing so it becomes automatic. Habits are similar, as they rewire the brain. Wood explains, “When you have people in scanners, activation starts in the decision-making areas of the brain… Over time, as you repeat a behavior and keep getting that reward, activation shifts more to the basal ganglial areas… because we’re no longer thinking actively; instead, we’re responding based on habit.”
- Framed around New Year’s resolutions, this is an excellent summary of science research on habits.
- Psychologist Wendy Wood featured on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast [check out the popcorn study around the 30-minute mark].
- Here is a review of Wood’s book, Good Habits, Bad Habits.
- What you think you know about the importance of willpower might be wrong.
- Greg considered habits and mentioned an accessible book by Charles Duhigg on his blog.
- We discussed neuroplasticity – what happens in the brain as we form new habits – back in 2018.
- We have looked at a number of virtues and how to cultivate them: gratitude, hope, forgiveness, and humility.
- Compassion and empathy may not be fruit of the spirit, but they are well-studied.
- All of our ministries would benefit from better habits around generosity.
What Habit(s) Will You Change?
COVID-19 has created the kind of friction and has even handed us environmental changes that scientists like Wendy Wood talk about when it comes to how we can best change our habits. Even our access to certain rewards has changed (I don’t drive by Ben & Jerry’s these days). So as we create new patterns in our lives, including how we do church and fellowship, what new habits can we form?
Prayer is one we can all work on. My new habit—one that I pray will end soon—is to look at the various maps tracking COVID-19 and pray for those I know (and those I do not) that are represented by the red dots and circles. I’m praying for high school friends and their parents in the Detroit area, or college friends in New York. I’m remembering towns our family visited in Northern Italy and people young and old across the globe whose lives have been forever changed. Again, I hope this particular prayer routine ends soon, but are there other habits we can develop so that we do indeed pray without ceasing?
We might also consider the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22ff) and virtues. Isolated yet surrounded by so much suffering, how can we increase love, self-control, gratitude, hope, forgiveness, generosity and even humility? Or is there some other aspect of our walk with God—ways to respond to the Cross and the empty tomb—we might cultivate? Might our new spiritual habits even serve a need around us?
I know our family is still trying to figure out a routine with parents working from home and three kids doing school remotely. Creating new habits is not our top priority. But I hope as routines become more regular, we might cultivate an Easter habit or two, so that all the death that surrounds us, like the cross, does not have the last word. Instead, may the habits we form during this pandemic show the world that we are Easter people.