One feature of human life is how consistent it is for many people from day to day and, in many ways, across the years. Of course, we may graduate college, start a new job, move to a new city, lose friends and make new ones, get married, etc. Despite all these changes, we end up doing many of the same things we’ve always done, thinking along the same paths, judging ourselves and others in much the same way, and responding emotionally in predictable patterns.

Clearly, systems must exist that maintain this consistency. One system that sustains consistency is that of temperament and personality, another is that of cognitive and behavioral habits, and another is that of the lasting effects of early life experiences, especially adverse childhood experiences such as of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or early death of parent. These childhood experiences are likely to leave the person, now an adult, mistrustful of others, of the permanence of their availability, and of the endurance of their relationship.

Habits are often discussed when they are deemed to be a problem. But, of course, they can be adaptive or maladaptive or both depending on context. Habits of attention, thought, emotional response, and behavior carry past learnings into the present to inform the ongoing course of action. Without habits, the organism would be as if new-born at every moment. It would have to discover anew the significance, the appetitive and aversive nature, of every stimulus. Habits allow the organism to run cognitive and behavioral routines based on antecedent conditions rather than on assessment of consequences. Thus, they act quickly and automatically. Habitual responses can be overridden, of course, but effortfully so.

The downside of habits is exactly the same as their upside; they are routines triggered by antecedent conditions, acting without or prior to consideration of goals and consequences. A response comes before a person has taken the time to explore the ‘affordance space’ of possibility, of thinking, feeling, acting in new ways in order to achieve different results or discover new possibilities.

One way to bend habits (habitual ways of attending to, thinking about, responding emotionally and behaviorally to situations) to be more conducive to happiness, success, and the good life is to adjust one’s attitude towards individual situations or towards their entirety as they are encountered throughout the day. Attitudes are a complex of beliefs, cognitive biases, evaluative judgments, particular attentional saliencies, and emotional and behavioral dispositions.

Attitudes are often long-standing and part of the habitual complex. Thus, they themselves are triggered by particular antecedent conditions. For example, a person may wake up in the morning, go down to their kitchen to make coffee, see their spouse there, find the spouse to be stand-offish, and become ‘triggered,’ developing an attitude of dissatisfaction and irritation that may take hours or days to dissipate. From then on, that person may stay acutely aware of any potential signs of their spouse acting less than ideally towards them and feel confirmed in their attitude. Their attention, thoughts, and emotional and behavioral responses remain attuned to being slighted or ‘mistreated’ and maintain a behavioral disposition to respond defensively and/or aggressively.

Attitudes often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Believing your spouse is somehow acting inappropriately or unkindly towards you will likely lead you to act inappropriately or unkindly towards him or her. Soon both members of the couple are sore and smarting and feeling justified that their initial ‘hunch’ was right, that their spouse was acting in an untoward way toward them, rather than seeing their initial ‘hunch’ as the cause of the entire sad series of alienating encounters.

Of course, attitudes and their consequences occur from out of particular antecedent conditions and usually sooner or later dissipate. However, one-off and temporary attitudes tend to recur and eventually turn into enduring attitudes. Then, each new situation faced under the influence of one’s prevailing attitude tends to lead to the same kind of outcome through the mechanism of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, a person with an attitude of mistrust will tend toward deepening mistrust that also tends to spread outward into adjacent kinds of situations. Pretty soon, most of that person’s interactions are entered into with this attitude of mistrust and then reap the ill rewards of that attitude.

On the other hand, a person with a trusting attitude will tend toward deepening and spreading trust. Most people, after all, are honest and trust-worthy, so that a person with a trusting attitude will usually have their trust confirmed. Even if they are at sometimes taken advantage of, their existing trusting attitude will more likely lead them to conclude that a particular incident in which their trust was abused was what it was: an uncommon and unfortunate occurrence, one that need not lead to giving up on their trusting attitude, at least not in an overgeneralized way.

The good news is that habitual attitudes can be brought into conscious awareness, monitored, and changed.

A person can choose to consciously take on a certain attitude. This can be done through a consideration of their core values and their desire to live up to them, and through a series of practices that serve to strengthen and make habitual these attitudes, such as for example, setting up reminders throughout the day of one’s desired attitude and the reasons for it.

To give you an example of what types of attitudes a person can consider taking on, I found one article about physicians that focuses on attitudes and practices related to their clinical work. In a study published in 2011, a group of researchers (Chou, Kellom, and Shea*) at the University of Pennsylvania had internal medical residents nominate clinical faculty who best exemplified ‘humanistic’ approaches to patient care. The researchers chose the 16 physicians (out of a faculty of 591) with the greatest number of nominations and interviewed them with the goal of identifying the attitudes and practices they held in common. They identified six attitudes that contributed to their humanistic approach. They were:

  • Humility
  • Curiosity
  • Humanism seen as a standard of behavior
  • Humanism seen as medically important for the patient
  • Humanism seen as important for the physician
  • Seeing the role of physician as treating more than just the disease

These six attitudes were maintained through daily practices, what the authors call, habits. They were:

  • Self-reflection
  • Seeking connection with patients
  • Teaching and role-modeling humanism
  • Striving to achieve balance
  • Mindfulness and spiritual practices

These habitual practices required attention, time, and work. One respondent reported, “I’ll do this almost on a daily basis. Take that time to step back and think about what’s really happened … what I could have done better and how I could have done things differently … what have I done right or wrong? That’s very much built into my daily routine.”

So, the question I pose to myself and to you is: What attitude do I wish to inculcate/nurture/practice that will bring me closer to the good life?

For myself, what resonates most is an attitude of exploration, learning, reflecting upon, trying out. I wish to see every situation as one that will teach or show me something, that will disclose something that was unknown or hidden, that will lead me to a deeper understanding. This attitude should translate for me into encountering people with curiosity, open engagement, and respect for their point of view. Even difficult situations are opportunities to learn. Even ugly places have their own weight and value. It is up to me to see what presents itself and appreciate it for what it is as true to itself.

So, what is your current prevailing attitude? Is there anything about it you wish to change? If so, what do you need to do to change it? What habits or practices would help you implement and maintain them? Please let me know and I’m happy to publish it here anonymously (unless you wish to be recognized).


Dr. Jack

Language Brief

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”  ― Kurt Vonnegut

“I am a part of all that I have met.”Alfred Tennyson

“It is good people who make good places.”Anna Sewell

“Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.”Cormac McCarthy

“Every day one should at least hear one little song, read one good poem, see one fine painting and ― if at all possible ― speak a few sensible words.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Source: Carol M. Chou, Katherine Kellom, and Judy A. Shea. “Attitudes and habits of highly humanistic physicians” Academic medicine 89.9 (2014): 1252-1258.