Friday, June 21, 2024

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Do people ever change? For many of us, the immediate answer to that question was an emphatic no ÔÇô people never change and it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

You may even have strong reasons for why you believe that to be the case. Maybe you tried and failed to initiate change in your own life, such as starting an exercise or diet regime that fell by the wayside; or you failed, several times, to give up smoking.

These disappointments lead us to believe that it is impossible to change, but the good news is, human beings can change. With some focused effort, we can replace unwanted behavior with that deemed more beneficial. No matter what our age, we can train ourselves to acquire new, more desirable habits, including thinking more positively as a way of increasing the happiness in our lives.

We are particularly malleable and receptive to change when it is introduced at an early age – think of all the habits that were instilled in your childhood that have stayed with you to the present day.

Leading positive psychologist, James Pawelski, writes that because we are incapable of character formation through individual choice from an early age, good habits should initially be installed in children to arm them with the capability of forming their own desired habits later. He gives examples of how new habits can be learned, including through conscious control of our mental focus.

As a child, I remember dreaming of the time when I would leave home and play by my own rules. When the opportunity finally presented itself, I dabbled in all sorts of things that my parents would not necessarily have approved of, including alcohol and other ‘less common’ intoxicants. But after the initial excitement wore off, I was startled to discover just how easily I reverted to my old life; and just how like my parents I really was.

Yet there were other behaviours that have not necessarily stayed with me. For example, going to church every Sunday used to be non-negotiable in our family, yet these days, I tend to go there only on special occasions like at Christmas, or for someone’s funeral.

So why are some habits easier to sustain than others?

It is because despite the need for initial training, positive habits are best sustained when they become volitional and, to a greater or lesser extent, self-determined. Regardless of how much we are cajoled into behaving a certain way, unless that behaviour becomes voluntary, it cannot be sustained.

Think back to the last time you tried to coerce someone into changing ÔÇô did you ask them to drink less, or stop staying out late? Under duress, they may have agreed, only to slip back into their old patterns soon afterwards.
The biggest mistake we make is trying to force people to change when they are not ready to; or committing ourselves to change aspects of our lives that we would rather not. In such cases, we are setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment.

However, where we are truly committed to the change, we can succeed, through the power of our mental focus.

In his definitive work, Flow, positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that we are affected by where we consistently choose to focus our attention, including in the results that we produce. For example, if you consistently think of yourself as an under-achiever, you are unlikely to attain results that you can be truly proud of.

Start replacing unconstructive ways of thinking with ones that are more positive. See yourself as capable; including of acquiring desired new habits.

Like any good habit, ‘right thinking’, or the process of consistently focusing on positive rather than negative thoughts, can also be learned and adopted into habit. Once it becomes firmly rooted into your life, it can be sustained with less effort. Habitual positive thinking sets new positive beliefs into motion, and as we start to expect the best from the people and situations in our lives, we attract more of the same into our physical reality.

Famed philosopher, William James, writes that like a garment that changes its tissue after having been worn for some time, or a lock that works better after repeated use, so too can human beings overcome resistance in their own lives through a process of “habituation.” He suggests making habitual as many useful actions as possible, as early as possible, in order to diminish the amount of conscious attention necessary to perform them. This includes the habit of cultivating happiness, or a cheerful attitude.

James gives examples of how new habits can be acquired including through, amongst others, abruptly acquiring the habit; and never allowing exceptions to take place until such habit is safely engrained in our lives.

Aristotle too, pointed to the importance of developing good habits. He encouraged excellence by “practicing behaviour that eventually becomes habitual in us.” More importantly, he noted that happiness comes about as a result of the full development and exercise of our human capacities in an excellent way; and that such virtues, while we have a natural capacity for them, are not innate – they can be learned through practice.

Old dogs can learn new tricks, and people do change if they really want to. Make a genuine commitment to change; and start effecting that change as soon as possible. Focus your attention in the direction of what you want and practice until the new behaviour becomes a habit. While most experts give a time frame of 30 days to create a new habit, it may take slightly longer. What is important is to stick to the process until you achieve the desired results.

Do this with unwanted belief systems too ÔÇô when you catch yourself thinking negatively, turn your attention towards more positive thoughts.

Doing this little by little will help you undo years of negative mental programming and attain the outstanding results that you have been after.


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