Preserving good habits

A habit is, by one definition, “an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary”. While acquiring habits takes effort and is quite hard, losing them is easy and can happen surprisingly quickly.

Some habits are often built because of the people around you. And if in the wrong company, previously held good habits can get lost.

This happened to me recently. And although I had a faint realisation while I was losing this habit, it only fully hit me when I had lost it. To prevent this happening again, I have to remind myself to not just actively seek the good from people around me but also shun the bad.

Double the effort, double the reward.

Learning from religion

Alain de Botton gave a very interesting talk at TED. He tried to do what few dare – mix religion and atheism. He called for Atheism 2.0. There’s lot of food for thought in his talk but I’ve decided to do something new with situations like this one. To the many ideas that got thrown at me, I am going to apply my two ideas deal. According to that deal, I am going to share one idea from the talk that I feel very convinced about and one idea that I felt completely repelled by.

Repetition is a necessity

Botton claims that in a secular world we are taught lessons once and are expected to remember them for a life time. Instead, religion understands that our minds are like sieves and they expect us to repeat important life lessons over and over again.

I feel convinced with this idea. Religious or not, people tend to make very similar mistakes in their lives over and over again. I am sure you’ve come across older people who seem to make the same common mistakes that we young people make. This phenomenon has made me wonder many times whether our ability to learn drops so sharply as we grow old that we need to make those mistakes again to remember the lesson we’ve learnt already before.

It seems that Botton’s claim holds a good explanation for this phenomenon and moreover, it also makes me think about a better way of keeping a track of life lessons. It seems to me that as an atheist and a rationalist, I would benefit from something like a self-written guide to good living. A document that I can keep tweaking as I go ahead in life but also something I can refer to on a regular basis to refresh the many important lessons that I’ve learnt.

I also believe that the key to better living is forming better habits. This ‘guide’ could be used to help form these key habits.

Bringing dogma to education

Botton’s thoughts on how university education should be restructured by learning from religion repel me. He claims that currently universities around the world treat us as rational adults who need information and data to be able to understand how to live a good life. Whereas, all major religions treat us as children. Religions believe that ‘we are only just holding it together’ and that we need help. He says that we should bring back sermon style teaching where words are meant for changing lives and not just for giving information.

This idea repels me because, in short, what he is requesting us to do is going to bring dogma to education. Universities are places where people come to learn from their own experience rather than get told what is that they should do. They face opposing ideas and must learn to be able to draw their own conclusions.

The world is a very complex place and not even the combined knowledge of all religion, philosophy and science can yet, accurately enough, set guidelines of how to live a good life. It is definitely much better to let people figure out whether they need help rather than overwhelm them with ‘help’ that Botton thinks is the right help for them.

Best of the two worlds

I am not against the notion that there are certain things that religion does well and that it may well be possible to have the best of the two worlds. Yet, I think that the best of two worlds will be different for different individuals. A one-size fits all isn’t the way forward, and Botton accepts that too.

The Role of Habits

The key to better living is forming better habits. Leo Babauta’s now famous blog Zen Habits started with that motto. Forming new habits or getting rid of old habits is difficult and we know that. Past experiences have taught us that lesson. But it has been shown by many that a period of about 30 days is enough to form new habits or break old ones.