As a recovery coach, I work with people trying to change a habit. We work on finding different ways of responding to a trigger. For some seeking recovery, they want to find an easier, softer way. Others think willpower is all they need to get sober. But that doesn’t always work. As Charles Duhigg describes in his book, the Power of Habit, for a habit to be changed, people must believe change is possible.
Where does this belief come from? Habit change can emerge from a tragedy or from some kind of adversity. Many addictions have been successfully abandoned when an individual hits bottom and finally seeks treatment. Many people give up smoking after a diagnosis of heart disease or when a family member is being treated for lung cancer.
A Harvard study in 1994 examined people that had radically changed their lives. Some had experienced the death of a loved one, divorce or life-threatening illness. Others radically changed their life from observing a friend experience a disaster. Tragedy plays an important part of having an impact on one’s life. But equal to tragedy facilitating change, the same amount of people made change happen in their life because they were surrounded by supportive friends that encouraged change. The Harvard study sites a woman that changed the direction her life when she took one psychology course at a local college and found a group of like-minded individuals. Another man came out of his introverted shell when he joined an acting group. So for change to happen for many, it didn’t take a life shattering event, it simply took a community of believers.
“Change occurs among people”
–Todd Heatherton, Dartmouth College Lincoln Filene Professor
A community of non-smokers talk about how great it feels like to be a non-smoker. How nice it is not to have your hair smell like an ashtray. Your spouse commented on how fresh his clothes smell, now that you have stopped smoking. And co-workers admire you for having the strength to stop smoking. These like-minded people can also resolve some negative feelings, as well. Such as what to do after a meal, when the habit of lighting up a Marlboro is the most strong. Or how to refrain from smoking in your car. These friends are there for you to call, text or email whenever the urge to smoke becomes unbearable. Support from a community and their confidence in you, bolsters the strength you need to believe you will not pick up a cigarette.
For habits to change permanently, people must believe change is possible. This same process makes any mutual support group very effective – the power of a group to teach individuals that they can believe it is possible to change. This belief happens when people come together to help one another to change. Whether the group is Nicotine Anonymous, a breast cancer support group or massive amounts of volunteers descending on New Orleans, post Katrina, to re-build the city to it’s former glory.