What Halloween Can Teach Us About Healthy Habits
Take a cue from your kids and “act as if."
Posted Oct 25, 2018
With Halloween around the corner, our almost 8-year-old son Liam’s excitement is palpable as he is meticulously putting together his costume to dress up as one of his favorite soccer stars. He is not the only excited person in our household! We, his grown parents, are equally as enthused and are looking forward to this fun holiday as well.
You see Halloween is a family affair in our home. Each year the three of us don costumes and have a great time seeing how much candy we can amass while staying in character the entire time trick-or-treating door to door in our neighborhood. Before the big night we all decide in advance our collective theme - for several consecutive years it was pirates; this year it's everything soccer.
The decision for this year’s theme was simple. An avid soccer player, Liam is passionate about the sport. He plays on a local team, never misses practices, and can be found dribbling a soccer ball at any opportunity he gets. He also regularly watches soccer videos paying close attention to the strategy of the individual players to help up his game.
Prepping for this yearly holiday tradition got us thinking about how Halloween can help us practice healthy habits. We realize many people might not equate Halloween with healthy habits given the inordinate amount of sugar that is often digested in a single evening. However, we think the holiday can teach us some important life lessons about our actions (beyond simply what happens to our bodies if we overindulge!) if we take the time to ponder the following:
Instead of just merely dressing up as our favorite characters how can we actually practice being more like those we admire? In other words, how might we mimic our favorite hero or role model by identifying and adopting some of his or her admirable traits?
No doubt we've all heard the popular line "life is not a dress rehearsal." Rather, life is the real thing. And we only have one life in which to act and become who we want to be. Keeping this idea in mind, if we want to achieve something (whether it's being a better soccer player or a more compassionate friend or partner) how might we mimic others and start practicing healthy habits that will move us closer to our goals?
"Fake it 'til you make it" and “act as if”
We all are familiar with the popular phrase "Fake it 'til you make it." And philosopher and psychologist William James suggested we "act as If,” which research shows is likely to lead to achieving our goals. If we want to be more joyful, “the sovereign path to cheerfulness is to act cheerful,” James argued.
More recently, the work of leading positive emotion researcher Barbara Fredrickson shows an effective way to feel happier is to practice "prioritizing positivity" or doing those things that bring us joy. If we want to be a better soccer player, we need to hit the field regularly and do what the great players do: practice dribbling, passing, and shooting the ball.
Additionally, we will not only get better but also feel better in the process if we love what we are doing.
However, it’s not simple. Habits take work. They are not knee-jerk reactions. We need to be proactive and see habits as a skill. Specific actions we practice daily. It's the doing and "acting" that makes a difference rather than simply watching, wanting and imagining something.
If our son wants to be a better soccer player sure he can watch others to learn strategy. But that's not all he needs to do. He needs to get into the game and actually play, which fortunately he loves to do. Many of us sit out on the sidelines rather than acting in our game of life. According to Aristotle, in order to effect change or achieve a specific goal we need to set an intention and then get up and do something. Not just once. But rather, regularly and repeatedly.
And James emphasizes the importance of exercising the will by doing something hard every day, for no reason other than the fact that it is hard. Doing so he says can strengthen our will, making it ready for when we need it the most. Whether we want to be a good soccer player or become better at relationships we have to practice and work at it repeatedly, over the course of years, if not a lifetime.
In our book, Happy Together, we discuss Aristotle's notion that mastery in these domains involves action of the right sort. These actions can turn into good habits. And it's never too late to start a good habit thanks to what we know about neuroplasticity. We can mimic healthy habits from our parents, friends, heroes, and anyone who inspires us. At every stage of our development, we can make choices for adopting and maintaining the habits that constitute good character, support our individual goals and those of healthy relationships.
So this Halloween take the time to think about those people who really inspire you. Next, ask yourself what are the traits and habits that you admire in them and how might you mimic them to become better yourself. And finally, heeding the advice from some of the great philosophers and psychologists, make an effort to do something regularly and practice “acting as if.” Over time, you will move closer to achieving your goals and becoming the person you want to be.
Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J. (2018) Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.