A comfort habit is anything you do to feel good when you were feeling bad. A cookie, a drink, a pill, a cigarette, a credit card, an electronic device, or a romantic interlude are familiar comfort habits. They turn on so automatically that you may not even notice the bad feeling that got the ball rolling. And you may not even feel good in the end because these behaviors have consequences. Yet you repeat your comfort habit over and over because your brain expects it to feel good.
An expectation is a real physical pathway in your brain. It's built from past experience, which is why we all have our own unique expectations. Our brain is designed to learn from what feels good. That's how our ancestors found their way back to a delicious fruit tree, and it's how you brain learned to expect relief from distress in a particular way. Once your brain builds the pathway, you keep expecting to feel good, even if you end up with harm.
The solution is to build a new pathway. This may seem impossible because you don’t know how to build a pathway and you can’t imagine a new habit that would feel as good as the old one. But when you know how your brain works, you can train it to expect good feelings in the long run without artificial stimulation in the short run. Here’s a simple plan to do that.
Three Steps to a New Comfort Habit
Repetition is what it takes to build new neural pathways. If you repeat a new behavior for 45 days without fail, your brain will learn to expect a good feeling in a new way. Just follow these simple steps:
1. Design a new choice you can live with
Choose a new thought or behavior you can repeat when you feel distress. It may seem hard to find something that feels good without creating another bad habit. Fortunately, it doesn't take a big jolt of pleasure. Distraction is enough to relieve distress because it gives the electricity in your brain a new place for to flow. For example, you can spend five minutes reading a novel or listening to a comedy recording when you feel a need for comfort. Bad feelings are brain chemicals that make you feel like you are about to die. They helped our ancestors survive urgent threats, but they can also make you feel like you must do anything that makes them stop. If you're ready with a healthy distraction, you teach your brain that bad feelings do not actually kill you. You build the expectation that bad feelings pass and good feelings return.
2. Seize the moment to activate your new choice
Making a new choice is hard if you were never aware of making the old choice. People sometimes find themselves in front of a half-empty bottle of wine or box of cookies without remembering the moment they chose it. The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. It flows into old habits effortlessly because the pathways are so big. It's not easy to stop that flow and divert your electricity into a skinny little channel. Here’s a simple way to build that skill. A week before you start your new comfort habit, commit to spinning around in a circle before you indulge in your old habit. It sounds dumb, but you will turn your whole body around because you want that drink, that cookie, that pill, cigarette, screen time, spending spree, or romantic encounter. The silliness and physicality of this act etches the moment of choice in your brain. You learn to notice and slow down that choice moment so you have more time to activate an alternative. If you can’t spin in a circle, choose another awkward gesture: walk backward for five steps, recite the Gettysburg Address, count backwards in Japanese. Any memorable gesture carves the moment into your brain- the more awkward, the better.
3. Make your energy available for this project
It takes a lot of energy to re-direct an impulse, which leaves you less energy for other things. This is why we often “go with the flow.” Your new choice will start to flow in 45 days because neurons will connect, but before that, you have to make your energy available. Do not buy furniture that needs assembly or crowd your calendar with other frustrations during this time. You may say “I don’t have time to read novels or listen to comedy,” but you are spending time dealing with the consequences of your present comfort habit. If you invest your energy in a new choice today, you will enjoy high returns in a few weeks. Your electricity will have a new place to flow!
You may find it hard to believe that something will feel good in 45 days if it doesn't feel good today. You may think it's foolish to invest effort in a new circuit when your old circuits built effortlessly. It helps to know how your old habit got to be such a big circuit:
You have the power to re-direct your electricity instead of letting it flow effortlessly into old pathways. This power is your most valuable possession.
A more complete step-by-step guide is in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels.