Of habits and relationships
Arif Zakaria on how habits can make or mar relationships
Let's share our most common habits - a second cup of coffee in the morning, reading a newspaper on the toilet seat, sitting in your ‘favourite' chair on the dining table and using a specific brand of cologne.
This is just the beginning of the day . If we care to strip our day into small parts, each part coinciding with our actions, we'll be astonished that a majority of our actions and responses fall under the purview of a surprisingly overrated human trait called ‘habit'.
First and foremost, let's define ‘habit'. Habit would be loosely construed as a sustained physical or mental response, done repeatedly over a period of time, thus cementing itself, getting engraved in our psyche and then becoming the norm.
Everything is a habit. Benefits notwithstanding, our daily gym habit sees us heading off like zombies to fulfill a physical habit. Toilet habits make or mar relationships - the dribble on the toilet seat has far-reaching consequences. Cursed are those whose bowels don't have a habit! Eating habits sort or besot alliances.
A slurp, a chomp, a slouch and then a slap and ouch! A fashionable lady, high on charm and social etiquette (habit?) ended her relationship because her lover was in the habit of blowing his nose every morning.
But over time with uncharacteristic magnanimity, forgiven him for his other harmless habit of passing wind! Ladies, please let us lie under our quilt of quirks! No habit manifests itself more openly than our eating habits. Any dietician will tell you that the body needs about 2000 calories per day to stay healthy. So where do we ration the cheeseburgers, butter naans, samosas, chaats, biryanis and the midnight tubs of ice cream?
It's all clued-in to that great craving called ‘habit'. What's a sweet tooth, if not a sugar-coated habit? Our landscape would be bereft of the ‘walla brothers' (bhel, chaat, pani puri and gola), if it wasn't for our evolved gastronomic habits.
What about our preference for one brand over the other? The greatest overseer of human habits is the multinational companies. Consumer awareness, brand response and feedback forms are nothing but discreet windows into our habits information taken and mixed with advertising jargon, pleading with us to cultivate a habit.
All great advertising is nothing but a plea to create, cultivate and nurture a habit. We are vulnerable and latch on to anything, which gives us self-esteem and a dash of vanity and pride. A little gratification and these acts become integral to our lives. Remember what caused you to light the first cigarette?
The study of human behaviour is the study of our habits. Our brain is our evil employer. Nothing gives it a bigger high than seeing us latch on to a thought or an act with alarming regularity.
We develop a habit and our brains take a rest.
Tickling our subconscious
When we tirelessly slave on a thought or an act, the brain releases a chemical, which parks cleverly in our subconscious mind. Then the brain just relaxes and tickles the subconscious when we tread the familiar path, every five minutes. For we act out an old habit, every five minutes.
Habits transgress our physical and mental state too. An ancient legend from Arabia tells us that you can love anyone in the world, but only if you make him or her the centre of your affection.
Over a period of time, we get used to people. By this, we mean that we've learnt to shepherd our feelings towards them and start loving them. Of course, out of sight is out of mind, when you break the habit of proximity with people.
They don't share the same space any more, and your memory starts deleting their impressions. The brain is finally working.
We all live in this great habitat of our habits. Children cohabit their parents. The young cohabit the seasoned. Devotion, procreation and recreation are nothing but sustained, prolonged habits perfected over eternity and now masquerading as the norm. So strong is their clout that sometimes we fail to realise their insignificance.
We also tend to seek cover under the garb of a habit, especially when it comes to negative habits. A sign of weakness, an illegal act and a bizarre thought could be safely chained to habit and the world might be less judgmental.
Habit junkies perennially get our sympathies. Sniff around. All our maladies originate from a bad habit - global warming, obesity and fanaticism. Imagine where we would all be if Eve hadn't cultivated the habit of plucking apples on bright summer mornings!
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