Higher-order prefrontal cortex operations trouble us with thoughts about the meaning of our lives, but lower-order habits create meaning by default. Many studies show that people cite close relationships with family and friends as integral to the meaning of their lives, yet those in the habit of feeling devalued and responding with verbal aggression when they see a bath towel on the floor, for example, will devalue their loved ones who forgot to hang it up and risk damaging their most important relationships with accumulated resentment. To control the meaning of our lives, we have to train ourselves in new habits that make life better, not only for ourselves, but for those around us. Instead of automatically, habitually reacting to irritations and unpleasantness with resentment, self-pity, or aggression, we can train ourselves to respond in ways that will increase a state of genuine self-value while making other people feel valuable. In fact, this might be considered just a westernized learning-theory version of metta meditation, the ancient Buddhist practice of making oneself happier by wishing love, kindness, and happiness for others.
Education theorists consider novelty a primary motivator to learn. The joy of learning is apparent in infants and young children, to whom everything is novel, but even with advancing age, humans feel more alive when learning. Fortunately, as adults, we can invent our own novelty, and the most effective way to do that is by continually developing new habits and skills, while sharpening whatever old ones we deem beneficial. These new habits and skills can be applied to ventures in athletics, scholarship, arts, or psychotherapy. Learning sometimes means rejecting the familiar, but more often it requires going beyond it. Learning to make big therapeutic changes that will endure over time means going beyond the Christmas Carol model of practice and focusing instead on our smaller habits. In the long run, exorcising ghosts and experiencing catharsis didn’t change Patrick: it was the daily practice of behavior rooted in his deepest values that turned him into the loving and compassionate husband and father that he became.
Steven Stosny, PhD, is the director of Compassion Power. He’s the author of Love without Hurt and the coauthor of How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking about It. His forthcoming book is Living and Loving after Betrayal: How to Heal from Emotional Abuse, Deceit, Infidelity, & Chronic Resentment. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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