Existential Psychology

Habit Energy

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People who are doing pretty well in their lives might look down on those who are struggling, wondering how they could make such poor choices when the correct ones seem so obvious. What they don’t realize is that most of these ‘choices’ aren’t really choices at all, but habit energies that have been instilled in them from an early age, what Freud would have termed the super ego. Acceptable conduct, societal roles, cherished values and beliefs. Most people don’t spend a lot of time questioning where these things came from, they just hold them to be self-evident reality.

When behaviors become hardwired, what we might call habits, not a lot of conscious thinking goes into them so it’s not exactly correct to call them choices in the existential sense of the word. A choice occurs when you consider all the available courses of action and consciously choose the one that is best for you at that given time.

Habit energy is powerful. It allows people to go about their lives without having to waste all that extra psychic energy constantly deciding amongst various options, an anxiety inducing experience, as anyone who has been forced to a really important decision can attest. Habits are like cruise control, allowing you to take your mind off one important variable so that you can focus more of your attention on others.

In this context good habits and bad habits often have more to do with life circumstances than they do with conscious choices, and furthermore both good and bad habits take up about the same amount of energy. In an existential sense then, the real choice occurs when you decide you are no longer satisfied with your current style of living, with your bad habits, and that it’s time to make a change. Changing your habits is so difficult not because you don’t realize you’ll be better off but because existential anxiety automatically increases when familiarity decreases.

Any significant lifestyle change will include an anxiety laden transition period, but just remember that once you get over the hump the energy you were expending on your bad habits will be about the same as the energy you expend on your good habits. What you want to consciously ask yourself then is how you are currently using your habit energy, whether it’s helping or hindering your growth.