Habits to be ‘but coaxed downstairs a step at a time’. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) enjoys a cigar at his family home in Dublin, New Hampshire in 1906 Photo by Bettmann/Corbis


The lost hope of self-help

Habits – good or bad – were once a matter of ethical seriousness. Are they now just another technology of self-absorption?

by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen + BIO

Habits to be ‘but coaxed downstairs a step at a time’. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) enjoys a cigar at his family home in Dublin, New Hampshire in 1906 Photo by Bettmann/Corbis

With metronomic regularity, new books about both the strange and the mundane things human beings do with metronomic regularity become bestsellers. The American ‘habit’ industry produces a huge popular literature examining how habits are formed and how they are broken, how they enable and how they hinder, and how they are a function of heroic self-discipline or a confession of its absence.

They maintain that people can cultivate not just a ‘learning habit’ but even an ‘achievement habit’. They suggest that ‘Jesus habits’ and ‘joy habits’ are liberating, but that the ‘worry habit’ is shackling. ‘Habits not diets’ are the best way to free the self from the siren call of the refrigerator.

According to the bestseller, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2014), there are pesky habits of individuals (like smoking and procrastination), but also propitious habits of successful organisations (such as the ‘latte habit loop’ devised by Starbucks for its baristas – ‘latte’ here is not milky coffee, but a behavioural mnemonic) and social movements (like the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the early civil rights era). Gretchen Rubin, the author of another bestseller, describes herself as a ‘happiness expert’ and argues that habits are ‘the invisible architecture of our daily lives’. Training attention not only on this faintly perceptible structure of habits, but also on the shadows it casts and the light it lets in, will make readers, Rubin promises, ‘better than before’.

Much of today’s habits literature has a contemporary feeling, with its focus on time management, individual productivity, and business success, but the genre has a long history. For millennia, there has been a tradition of august thinkers writing about how healthy habits promote – and unhealthy habits undermine – self-fashioning and moral improvement. The ancient Stoics, for example, sought to understand how perfecting one’s reason by making it a habit could be the path to virtue. The Enlightenment psychologist Maine de Biran had a harder time squaring rigorous intellect and habitual practices, contending that ‘all that happens exclusively under the sway of habit should lose its authority before the eyes of reason’. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, was fascinated with habits. He had his own übermenschliche work habits, while at the same time he felt grateful to every bit of ‘misery and… sickness’ that came his way because they gave him ‘a hundred backdoors through which I can escape from enduring habits’. Gertrude Stein couldn’t have disagreed more. For Stein, the habits of ‘daily island life’ – those simple, unglamorous rituals of cleaning, eating, sleeping – were the means by which people who had lived through the savagery and chaos of two world wars could orient themselves with the simple and commonplace.

As ever, the habits literature of today promises order in a disordered world, but it also comes with a subtle and significant difference. The most important difference is not the forgotten art of style, though the staccato prose, exclamation points, bland generalisations, and clichéd motivational quotations of today’s literature neither stimulate the imagination nor activate the will. Rather, it is the lost promise of habits literature as a form of ethical inquiry and social commentary. Individual improvement has always been the purpose of habits literature, but the genre used to require appraising the society in which the self, and the habits, formed. Historically, thinking about habits without social contexts or ethical consequences was unthinkable. Today it is axiomatic.

So what is a habit? There is consistent agreement throughout this long tradition that a habit is a learned behaviour repeated so often that it becomes involuntary. When it is a repeated behaviour that comports with ideals of health, righteousness, and wisdom, it can go by other names such as ‘spiritual practice’, ‘ritual’, and ‘routine’. When it is a repeated behaviour contrary to notions of health, righteousness, and wisdom, its synonyms are ‘tick’, ‘obsession’, and ‘addiction’. ‘Sovereign will’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘necessity’ were once the keywords of this literature; nowadays they are ‘mindfulness’, ‘happiness’, ‘autopilot’. The ‘thou shalts’ long common in theological discussions of habits as spiritual practices have faded. Now the call for action comes not from on High, but from the individual’s bad conscience or longing for happiness.

Earlier authors relied on logical argument or rhetorical power to explain what the French philosopher Félix Ravaisson, in 1838, described thus: ‘The progression of habit leads consciousness, by an uninterrupted degradation, from will to instinct.’ Today’s authors turn to longitudinal psychological studies suggesting that ‘as much as 40 per cent of everything we do is done merely from habit’. Ravaisson and today’s habits writers are both rattled by the prospect of human beings being forced to do anything without their consent.

Steven Covey’s 1990 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a high-water mark in the contemporary American habits literature. Covey spawned a mass market for all-things-seven habits (seven habits of ‘highly effective teens’, of ‘happy kids’, and of ‘network marketing professionals’). He did so by taking the notion of a ‘paradigm shift’ – coined by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as a way of understanding the structure of scientific revolutions – and applying it to the structure of people’s perceptions about themselves and their worlds. If we are looking for the origin of the the voracious American appetite for self-improvement, however, we have to go back two centuries before Covey, to Benjamin Franklin.

For Franklin, cultivating wholesome habits was as crucial as discarding bad ones for the ‘bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection’. Franklin warned that those very behaviours that cunningly ‘took advantage of [our] inattention’ would keep us from ethical improvement. In his Autobiography, the 79-year-old Franklin recalled his youth when church services seemed to hold no promise for his moral perfection. So he took matters into his own hands. He developed a hierarchy of 12 virtues he wanted to become second nature: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity. When a Quaker friend gently reminded him that he had left out one virtue he could use a little more of – humility – Franklin conceded and added it to the list to bring it up to 13.

Franklin had a staff of subordinates to help him cultivate self-reliance

He then figured out the habits that would help ingrain these virtues. For temperance: ‘Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.’ For tranquillity: ‘Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.’ And for the elusive humility he pulled out the big guns: ‘Imitate Jesus and Socrates.’ Franklin invented what he described as a ‘method’, and what the French philosopher Michel Foucault two centuries later would characterise as a ‘technology of the self’, to track his habits. Today’s habits writers would simply call it a chart. He put the days of the week along the X-axis, the virtues he sought to habituate on the Y-axis; a black dot meant he had slipped up on that day in that virtue, while a column of clear blocks meant a virtuous day – a clear conscience. He included mottos from Cato, Cicero, and the Proverbs of Solomon to inspire him and encourage his practice of particular virtues.

Franklin’s ‘13 virtues’ method continues to be put to use in elementary school curricula and self-help manuals. His style of graphing, charting, and mantra-deploying technologies of the self are replicated in the habits literature in all sorts of ways. Practitioners of personal growth advocate making a ‘core values’ chart so that all of one’s daily commitments and activities comport with one’s life goals. The Post-it method involves sticking a yellow note on the food pantry door to help the reader’s higher self to stop his lower self from mindless munching: are you truly hungry, or just bored? There’s also the smartphone method for habit-breaking and making. Set a smartphone timer to ring every 30 minutes either with pleasing church bells or a jolting honk of a horn to make sure the habituator is aware of both good habits and bad ones.

Not unlike today’s habit industry, Franklin also had his social blindspots. In addition to his knack for industriousness and regimentation, he had his common-law wife Deborah to take care of their two children and his illegitimate son; a devoted sister Jane, who, though an impoverished mother of 12, served as her elder brother’s scribe, family record-keeper, and personal soap-maker; as well as household slaves who tended to his earthly needs so that he could devote his time to cultivating his virtues. He had, in short, a virtual staff of loved ones and subordinates to help him cultivate his self-reliance. Today’s habit industry is similarly blinkered about the social and economic architecture which for many makes cultivating personally-rewarding habits possible.

For self-help readers who like to base their habit-management on ancient east Asian wisdom, Lao-Tzu’s dictum that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’ reassures them not to be anxious about reforming a persistent habit. Others might prefer the advice of that jocular American sage, Mark Twain, who similarly observes: ‘Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.’ Carl Jung, by contrast, offers a behaviouralist approach. ‘We seldom get rid of an evil merely by understanding its causes,’ he argues, observing that obstinate habits ‘do not disappear until replaced by other habits’. Abigail van Buren, better known as ‘Dear Abby’, is more upbeat: ‘A bad habit never disappears miraculously. It’s an undo-it-yourself project.’

Of all of the habit prophets celebrated today, the Renaissance essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne is perhaps the most revered. Especially when the habit under examination is enervating (or even debilitating), habit experts turn to his meditations on the ‘sleep of habit’ that dulls the individual to herself and her world. ‘For in truth,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘habit is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She establishes in us, little by little, stealthily, the foothold of her authority… with the help of time, she soon uncovers to us a furious and tyrannical face against which we no longer have the liberty of even raising our eyes.’ Whether the habit in question is procrastination or nervous hair-twirling, authors have found this particular quotation indispensable.

One cannot blame these authors for turning to Montaigne. In Of Habit, and Not Easily Changing an Accepted Law (1580), he provides a treasure trove of images for thinking about how practices calcified into habits can deform the self. What is often missed is his equally urgent insistence that habits deform one’s understanding of others. What was insidious about one’s own silent consent to certain habits was not only that they ‘unhinged’ one from critical reason and self-reflection, but also that they blunted one’s ability to discern the beauty and dignity of other people. For Montaigne, the rumoured cannibalism in the New World was no more grotesque than the barbarism of the Old, and men lying with men no weirder then men lying with women. Thus, Montaigne’s scrutiny of habit also encouraged a scrutiny of the ethnocentrism and moral chauvinism of one’s own society.

The American philosopher and psychologist William James also appears frequently as an authority in the habits literature. It is not because the habits writers are philosophical pragmatists. James is a favourite because of his ‘fly-wheel’ metaphor, from his 1890 Principles of Psychology:

Habit is … the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of twenty-five you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveller, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counsellor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices … from which the man can … [not] escape. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

If this chilling image of a deterministic universe seems hard to square with James’s (occasionally) buoyant ‘will-to-believe’ pragmatism, perhaps it is because it was also hard for James himself. He was riddled with deep and paralysing bouts of ‘neurasthenia’, and struggled to find medicine a rewarding career after turning away from his childhood dream of being an artist. James developed pragmatism to work between these warring intellectual impulses; on the one hand, his ‘tender-minded’ romantic longings, and on the other, his ‘tough-minded’ desire for scientific authority.

This oft-quoted passage has a vibrant life in the habits literature. But the passage to follow merits mention too. There James, who will never let determinism get the last word, challenges this morbid version of habit, and calls upon the will to fight back. James takes the reader from macabre nay-saying, caught in the fly-wheel of a predestined world of habits, to yea-saying maxims of overcoming. James’s message here is not to be satisfied by maxims. Don’t just shout maxims back at a deterministic universe, James exhorts, act on them by remaking habits to be fruits of your own will by practising them over and over and over again. ‘Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day … [Be] the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.’

The fuller passage does more to show readers a conflicted self like their own, struggling to believe in and to exercise free will, despite an intimate awareness of a universe that conspires against it.

Even more important are James’s moral concerns, bound up in his preoccupation with the psychology of habit. James suspected that habits – dumb, blind, and often the result of something arbitrary or accidental – were the actions and beliefs people mistakenly ascribe to nature or necessity. But for James, the things casually attributed to the ‘human condition’ are nothing of the sort. They are just the condition human beings have gotten themselves into. And yet the promise of this revelation wasn’t simply that it should free the self from sea salt brownies and wasting time on Facebook, it was that it could liberate modern societies from their penchant for violence and militarism. In this light, James’s ‘Laws of Habit’ argument is best understood in relation to his ‘Moral Equivalent of War’. Published shortly before his death, the latter makes the case for redirecting habits of devotion, duty, and strenuosity, from moral campaigns fuelled by hatred to those that foster harmony; in essence, from warfare to social welfare.

Today’s habit authors do surprisingly little moralising. They do not hint that smoking makes the reader a bad person. They suggest she cut the habit because it makes her lungs black

For all the great historical thinkers and writers on habit who appear in today’s habits literature, two major figures are curiously absent: Alexis de Tocqueville and Arnold Toynbee. De Tocqueville and Toynbee’s observations about habit – American habits in particular – are as relevant today as they were when de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, and Toynbee in 1964-65. For de Tocqueville, what he called ‘habits of the heart’ – family relations, religion, notions of belonging – were crucial for fostering and sustaining a democracy. He thought the absence of these habits of affiliation might ‘some day prove fatal to its liberties’. Though de Tocqueville coined the term ‘individualism’, he did not think that habits belonged to the atomised human being, but rather to the social self. Similarly, when Toynbee wrote Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time (1966), he highlighted the dangers in the Cold War world, of Americans’ persistent parochial habits of heart and mind that kept them from thinking as citizens of the whole ‘human race’. For Toynbee, much like de Tocqueville, it was habits in the aggregate – not in isolation – that presented the greatest promises, and also the principal perils, for human flourishing. As with Montaigne, habits were social things.

There is much to recommend in today’s habit industry. It can awaken readers to new perspectives on themselves and their world. It can encourage people to take up challenging new practices that might roughen up the smooth grooves of familiar rituals, or it might help to chart a smooth new path through the rocky terrain of life.

But still, there is also something troubling about the habits literature of the present, and it is not its moralising tendencies. It may be that today’s habit authors do surprisingly little moralising. They do not encourage the reader to deny herself a cigarette by hinting that smoking makes her a bad person. They suggest she cut the habit because it makes her clothes smell and her lungs black. Nor do they insist she break her procrastination habit because she has an ethical obligation to get that report to her boss by 10am as promised. They encourage her to break her procrastination habit because she wants to keep her job and her vitality.

The shortcoming of this new habits industry is that it has lost touch with the social and ethical dimensions of habit talk so central to the classics in the genre. To be sure, habits authors have long adopted what now is called behaviouralist approach to the making and unmaking of habits. But Franklin’s ‘methods’ (imperfect as they were), Montaigne’s relativism, and James’s pragmatism demonstrate that habits are more than technologies of the individual self. They are also cultural practices, tethered to the social and economic contexts, and they have ethical implications. When today’s habit aficionados figure this out, they will truly offer readers a better self and a better society.