The psychology of good habits

Posted by Victoria Mason on January 30, 2024

Climate Change

In an interview with psychologist Dr Roger Bretherton, we explore how a psychological perspective can help us build better habits and what this has to do with following Jesus.

Read below, or you can watch the interview here:

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a psychologist, I’ve been working in universities for fifteen years and I’ve been a psychologist for twenty-five years. I’m really interested in ‘character strengths’. This is about the definition, development and measurement of positive qualities of character, like wisdom, love, good decision-making, gratitude, hope. Unusually for a psychologist, I’m not just interested in those things scientifically and pragmatically but also theologically – it’s an interesting area that combines all the parts of who I am!

What does it mean to build a good character?

It’s a good question! There are two ways of seeing that question. My preferred approach is a more organic view that sees human beings as a bunch of seedlings. We’re each unique in many different ways – some of us are wonderfully wise, some are kind, other people are really brave. Building character is turning our attention to those seeds that are already in us. I sometimes think of it like God has gone around sprinkling these seeds in the human race – we have our own unique way of expressing them. We grow character by paying attention to those things, thinking about how we can put them into practice and have a consciousness that, rather than saying ‘what’s going to challenge me today and how can I meet it’ but instead ‘what good things has God put in me and how am I going to use those in a new kind, creative, curious way today?’

What inspires you about the person of Jesus?

The thing that’s really inspiring me about him right now is how responsive Jesus is. There were so many stories that Jesus says, so many parables, so many things that he does that would never have happened if someone hadn’t asked a question, made a request or ‘got in his way’ in some way. And what I find inspiring about that is that sometimes I think we have this idea as Christians that being a Christian missionally means that we have this ‘content’ that it’s our job to sort of impose on the world and make the world fit it. Whereas in Jesus I see that he’s got this deep identity that just explodes and erupts and we see new facets of it as he encounters people in the world.

Tell us a bit about the habit of being curious

Curiosity is a really essential value for me. I would define ‘curiosity’ as non-judgemental attentiveness to ongoing experience. Non-judgemental – you’re not trying to work out ‘is this right or wrong?’ ‘is it a success or a failure?’, ‘is it easy or difficult?’. We’re simply saying ‘let’s just attend to what’s going on immediately and look at that’. I also think curiosity is one of the ways we constantly return to the present moment – constantly asking ‘what’s unfamiliar in what I think I already know is going on?’.

Think of our really close family relationships. Quite often we end up holding beliefs about these people that actually ceased to be true years ago but we haven’t given them up yet. That means we’re no longer relating to that person as they are – we are relating to that person as they once were. Then somehow when we relate to them like that, it traps them in still being like that. Curiosity enables us to return to our immediate experience of people in the present moment. It’s like our ‘refresh rate’. Curiosity is about returning to the present moment as often as I can and saying ‘what have I missed here?, ‘what’s different from the way I thought it was?’, ‘let’s not default back to my memory and what I thought happened last time – let’s see what new things are here, what new possibilities are here’.

There’s lots of really good psychology research on curiosity, around how curious people have much higher psychological wellbeing, they build deeper relationships much faster because they’re willing to be curious and interested in the people around them, they tend to perform better academically irrespective of IQ.

Jesus tells us not to worry but to seek first the kingdom of God. I’m often aware that curiosity is the same process as worry. But in worry we say that uncertainty is a bad thing and I want to nail this down and we loop round in anxiety, whereas in curiosity we do the opposite. We go ‘actually uncertainty is ok because I don’t know what things are all the time, I just keep pretending that I do!’

What are your reflections on the habit of being present?

Part of being present is being in contact with other people. One of the reasons we don’t like being present – why we’d rather live in our thoughts or be distracted or be somewhere else – is because there’s something inherently a bit scary about being in contact with other people. Because to be in contact as we are in the moment is to be fully human. But I guess my intuition about it is that weirdly to be vulnerable is the safest place to be because it’s the most real place to be. There’s nowhere to fall. If we present ourselves in some big egotistical way or as more impressive than we are, I think we quite often that we feel nervous about it.

I’m speaking to a group of people in a few weeks’ time that I’m feeling quite intimidated about and I’m tempted to reach out to ‘what’s my funniest material, what’s the thing that will make me sound most clever’ and I’m trying to resist it because I know two things happen as a result. Firstly, if I jump into thinking about how to present this veneer to people, I’ve validated my intimidation. Secondly, I present to them not myself but some false version of me. That sort of performance is fine in some contexts but, if I really want to make contact and really want to be present, then I have to choose not to do that.

To be present is to be embodied, incarnated – to be there in my body not just in my head. To be present, we need to demonstrate the character strengths, the fruits of the Spirit that we have, immediately – because we need to in order to remain present. When I’m present with that sense of wishing the good for whoever is in front of me, wanting to do this person good and connecting with them in some way, there is no ‘us and them’ any more – I realise that ‘they’ are really ‘us’.

What do you think about the habit of reimagining?

I tend to believe that everybody is always doing the best they can do at any given moment. So if right now they are resisting me, or we can’t see eye to eye, or we can’t agree, they are seeing it in the best way they possibly can in that moment. What I should be doing, from a strengths-based perspective is thinking ‘isn’t it brilliant that they’re so persistent?’, ‘isn’t it brilliant that they are so courageous in the way they hold their views?’, ‘isn’t it brilliant that they refuse to give up their integrity if they really believe something?’. Even if I don’t agree with the principle or perspective, I’m going to be on their side that I want them to be a whole human being who I’m not going to violate or make stupid or make wrong. In therapy, we say that you can’t kick down the doors of people’s defences – they’re there to defend! So the harder you push against them, the harder they push back. Defences can only be softened when people are invited into something that’s better than the defence that they had. One of the things that’s inevitable is that some defences will never come down.

Why do our habits matter?

As human beings, we are habit-forming creatures. Anything we do fairly regularly which is relatively simple quickly becomes automatic, so things like brushing our teeth, going to bed, how we walk. Almost everything we do at some point we had to learn and then eventually it becomes automatic. One of the findings I’ve found really interesting is the work on ‘level of construing’. This is really about the levels at which we’re asking questions about life. So a low ‘level of construing’ would be questions like ‘what do I do?’, ‘how do I do it?’, ‘what does it feel like?’. Sometimes that’s the level at which people are building habits. Whereas a high level of construing would be questions like ‘who am I?’, ‘what’s my purpose?’, ‘who am I trying to be like?’. When they do exercises looking at  this, every single time it’s that ‘high level’ which really leads to good self-control and sticking with things.

Habits are what we fall into or develop along the way to becoming the people we’re meant to be. A habit means that, if we just keep doing something really tiny, after a while we just become strengthened in it, so that things that seemed impossible to us five years ago now seem easy.  And some of those are just habits of thought. One of my habits would be daily, contemplative prayer and the practice of that is very simple – sitting in the presence of God. What I have noticed over years of doing that is that it’s easier for me to turn away from unhelpful styles of thinking that previously would have seemed like reality.

Habit means that you make the process the outcome. I feel like habits are very simple micro-tiny ways of programming ourselves but when you put them all together and keep doing them, then just glorious patterns in social relationships, in the way we relate to other people, the way relate to ourselves and our connectedness to God come about.

How can we help the practices of being curious, being present and reimagining become habits?

For me, it’s those daily moments of lifting my heart up to God. Those are the moments in which I’m transformed. The founder of Centring Prayer tells stories about people coming to him and saying ‘Father, I got distracted two hundred times during my practice’.  And he would say ‘wonderful, two hundred opportunities to return to Jesus.’ For me, that’s the practice that has really transformed me, step by step, in very incremental ways. And what that means is that some of those habits that we are talking about, you end up feeling not that you developed them or decided to do them but that they landed on you in some way.

Dr Roger Bretherton is a psychologist, academic and Associate Professor at the School of Psychology at Lincoln University in the UK. He is the co-author of The Character Course.

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