We all have habits, many of which are so ingrained that we have lost awareness of their existence. Some habits help our well-being, and others are silently harmful. Which are the “good” and “bad” habits? What is their impact on our well-being? What are the most health-helpful habits to build?
Almost any behaviour repeated enough times becomes a habit. That is as true for externally visible behaviours as it is for thoughts and emotions. Over time, our ingrained habits become invisible to us; we lose awareness that once, in the distant past, that behaviour started with a choice, a decision, which has since been so often repeated that it is now part of who we are.
Doing a little exercise every day is a habit that enhances well-being and longevity; it adds to the quality and quantity of life. Spending long hours immobile while watching TV and eating a sugar-filled dessert with every lunch and dinner have the opposite effect.
Here is one of the most well-being-enhancing habits you can adopt: intermittent fasting. In areas of the world where intermittent fasting is not used, the incidence of cancer is 300% higher. Yes, 300%.
There are many reasons why the habit of intermittent fasting is so good for health, not least of which is the development of the practice of self-control when it comes to eating and drinking. When someone has developed the habit of skipping a meal or not eating for a full day (just two types of intermittent fasting), they know they have developed the habit to the point where they can control what they eat, how much they eat, and when they eat. That is a powerful habit – powerful and effective self-control.
What are the most common “bad” habits, those that affect well-being?
We now know there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption. Any and all alcohol causes damage and increases the risk of a vast range of diseases. Studies have shown that cancer can be caused by alcohol consumption. The stronger the habit of alcohol consumption, the greater the risk of disease.
Eating too much and eating harmful “foods”, destroys health. Nearly all cases of type 2 diabetes have an unhealthy diet as the main cause. An unhealthy diet is the main factor in a huge list of fatal and chronic diseases.
Almost everyone knows that smoking kills. Many people are still unaware of the damage that vaping does. Why? The evidence is still mounting and has not yet reached the tipping point where governments take action. Whether it is smoking or vaping, the habit harms well-being.
Lack of exercise
“Immobility causes morbidity” is a phrase many healthcare professionals use to remind clients of the risks of immobility. When people develop the habit of sitting all day and not taking regular exercise, they massively increase their risk of health deterioration.
Every extra pound (0.5kg) that we carry puts extra strain on our hearts. When people are habitually overweight or obese, gaining fat-based weight, their risk of a vast number of fatal and chronic diseases increases: stroke, heart failure, cancer, diabetes, and many more.
Working too much can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, burnout, and even suicide. Karoshi is a Japanese word for death by overworking. As with most health-damaging habits, the consequences build up and compound over time until there is a moment when the full scale of harm is apparent.
Too much screen time
Spending too much time in front of our screens (computers, televisions, and smartphones) increases immobility and can lead to problems such as obesity, sleep disturbance, and social isolation, all of which are hugely harmful to our well-being.
Skimping on sleep
Sleep is hugely important to our health. People who are in the habit of skimping on sleep have worse mental and physical health than their sleep-friendly peers. Sleep deprivation is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Putting off tasks can be wise to manage workload when under pressure. However, when putting off tasks becomes the default setting, a habit, it can cause increased levels of stress and anxiety. Procrastination as a habit, in one context, can spread to being the norm in all contexts. You may have heard this phrase or its many variants: “I’ll lose weight/stop drinking/quit smoking… after the holiday/the kids have gone back to school/I get a new job…”
When people view their world through a negative lens on a habitual basis, they are more likely to be anxious, depressed, stressed, pessimistic, and have worse physical health than their more positive self-talking peers. In extremis, negative self-talk is strongly involved in many suicides.
Many people feel the need to withdraw from social contact from time to time, to recharge. But when a person makes social isolation a habit, it can lead to loneliness and have a strong negative impact on mental and physical health.
Hopefully, you engage in the opposite of the problem habits presented above to protect and enhance your well-being. If so, what additional habits can you form that are known to enhance your well-being even more?
Gratitude is the practice of appreciating the good things in our lives. Adopting a habitual attitude of gratitude has many benefits for our mental and physical health. It makes us feel better about life and boosts our immune system, to mention just a few of the evidence-backed benefits.
Learning – skills and knowledge
People who are engaged in the habit of learning are much less likely to develop any form of dementia and are mentally and physically healthier than those who do not have learning habits.
Giving back to others, helping others, can make us feel good about ourselves and better connects us to our community. It can also reduce stress and improve our mood. People who are most in the habit of helping others are generally healthier and happier. It seems that the main beneficiary of helping others is ourselves.
Having goals or purpose
The habit of setting goals or having an ongoing purpose is massively associated with improved well-being. The ancient wisdom, “Without purpose people perish,” seems to be true. If we set ourselves goals, it gives us a focus and a vehicle to develop all sorts of other skills, including persistence and self-responsibility.
When we are in good shape, mentally and physically, we are in the best place to help those we love. Forming the habit of taking “me time” might involve meditating, practising mindfulness, or engaging in one or more hobbies. People who form the habit of looking after their health are, unsurprisingly, mentally and physically healthier for longer. Which leads to the last key point.
People who follow routines, who make their health routines a habit, an overarching habit, are more likely to be healthy. The routine might be, for example, doing some exercise first thing in the morning, every morning, or every evening, or making sure you have a healthy diet most of the time, not just as a fad. Forming the habit of a healthy routine, a consistent daily schedule of healthy behaviours, can only lead to improved well-being.
What well-being enhancement habit will you start forming today?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.