If you were to put a single rat into a tiny little cage that had nothing but a cup filled with pure water and a second cup with a Morphium cocktail, what do you think the rat would choose?
It turns out that this experiment has been made many times.
And guess what happened almost every time?
The rats would choose the Morphium cocktail, and the researchers would quickly conclude that these experiments proved how addictive drugs can be.
However, one doctor by the name of Joe Alexander was a little suspicious by these early conclusions. In his mind, it was obvious that if you lock up a rat, or any other living being, in a little cage with no stimulation whatsoever, it will want to numb itself in any way it can.
To prove his point, doctor Bruce Alexander created what he called Rat Heaven:
This was a big spacious cage with male and female rats, stimulating toys and free food.
Do you have any idea what happened now when these rats were given the choice between pure water and Morphium?
In almost every case the rats now completely avoided the drugs.
To doctor Alexander this was proof that both animals and people don’t get addicted because of the chemical constellation of drugs, but rather due to this intense need to escape feelings of loneliness, boredom or even shame.
Ok, I must confess I am not a doctor and I can’t tell you if this is accurate enough.
I also agree that we humans are not rats, we live in a more complicated world that brings about all sorts of challenges, and people have genetic dispositions, suffer disappointments and setbacks that make us incomparable to other living beings.
However, there is one compelling theme from this argument that has really changed the way I think about human motivation:
It is this:
If we don’t have something we look forward to, then we tend to seek ways to keep ourselves busy and distracted.
For rats, this means having colorful toys and playmates.
For us human beings it probably means having deep connections and purposeful activities.
Without any of these, we become prone to self- defeating habits:
For some of us, this might mean playing video games until late hours instead of working on our business.
Others might browse the internet for hours. Instead of spending valuable time with their family.
And yet others might enjoy drinking and smoking despite their poor health.
Now I am not saying that getting rid of a negative habit is easy.
Many of us have tried really hard to lose weight, quit smoking or get rid of any other form of addiction.
But sometimes we experience a real breakthrough:
All of a sudden a habit that seemed unbreakable no longer seems appealing to us.
Can you relate?
Take this example:
Have you ever met a woman who is a heavy smoker and who had tried to stop smoking so many times, but without success?
And then all of a sudden, she is three months pregnant and stops from one day to the next.
How is this possible?
That is something I have been thinking about a lot recently, as it could entail the secret to breaking bad habits.
If you have ever tried to get rid of a poor habit, you probably know that this can be darn difficult, and I won’t try and simplify it in one blog post:
I also realize that some people have a biological predisposition to addictions;
Others are dealing traumas and serious life events that make them want to numb their thoughts and feelings in any way they can.
And yet others simply lack the willpower to tackle their demons.
But what if we could find an easier way for many of us to transform poor habits into better ones?
In the same way that the rats from Rats Heaven experienced the kind of stimulating environment that no longer made them wish to numb themselves with cocktails of drugs, women who become pregnant also experience a major change in their life.
But in contrast to rats, we human beings can create our reality within the comfort of our head, and we can vividly picture our future in ways that no other animal can.
And I believe herein lies the secret to how pregnant women being able to stop smoking so seemingly effortless.
It is because they change their thinking in at least three ways:
- They envision for themselves a new identity as a mother who is determined to raise a healthy and happy baby and can literally sense the joy that this new role will give them.
- They have a powerful reason to stop smoking instantaneously, knowing that otherwise, they could harm their baby.
- Often they also replace smoking with a new trigger or habit- for example doing things to promote their own health and getting ready for when they have their baby.
This new identity, coupled with a strong reason and a clear and compelling vision is what gives these women the power to stop smoking- often effortlessly.
But this does not only apply to smokers:
Someone wrote me how they stopped drinking from one day to the next.
Initially, his goal was to stop drinking for a few weeks.
However, during this time, he developed a new identity for himself as someone who could have fun without getting drunk; he also realized that he was becoming productive and focused and he started seeing and feeling how much more energized and inspired he felt without alcohol.
The best part is that this entire process happened effortlessly and without the need to use tons of willpower.
What we learn from this example and from pregnant women is that was we discover a meaningful purpose and vision that requires us to shift our habits, this process often becomes so much easier.
But unlike rats, we don’t need to change our entire environment for this to happen.
Instead, we have the power to create a compelling and exciting future inside the comfort of our head.
By becoming clear about what it is we want for our future, why this is so important to us, and how this change will upgrade our life and personal well-being, we can often get rid of poor behaviors and replace them with better ones without overburdening our willpower.
This is how I almost effortlessly stopped drinking at parties, eating meat and watching hours of sports on TV.
OK now to you:
I am not asking you to stop with any negative behaviors.
I am not even asking you to reduce poor habits.
Instead, I just want you to just start thinking about your ideal future life, by asking yourself questions like this:
What is one habit that does not really fit into my future identity?
Once you know what that habit is, take a few minutes and answer these three questions (ideally in a journal):
- Why do I want to get rid of this habit? The more compelling your reason, the better. It usually helps if other people benefit from this habit change as well…
- How would your future life improve if you would get rid of this behavior for at least a year?
- And what negative consequences would you and your loved ones experience in a year from now, if you didn’t make any changes?
OK, now to the most important part.
From the world of sports, I have learned how impactful visualizations can be.
So here is what I want to suggest you do:
For the next week, try to visualize what your life would look like without the habit you are trying to get rid of.
Really imagine yourself as if you were experiencing that life in real time:
- Picture the benefits you and the people closest to you would be enjoying in the long run from your habit change as if this was happening right now.
- Envision with all your senses what you would be seeing, hearing, tasting and even smelling.
- Also, try to experience the positive emotions you would be enjoying as if you were feeling these emotions right now.
Do this for at least 5–10 minutes daily.
Visualizations are so powerful because the more clearly you can see and feel what you would like your life to look like in the future, and how changing this one habit would make a meaningful difference, the more likely it will be that eventually, you will find the strength to take the action required.
If you have any questions, please let me know in the comment section below.