The power of belief and habit

The Power of Habit
The Power of Habit

It seems writers who talk about the power of positive thinking, the power of affirmation, the law of attraction and creative visualization are right, after all. Faith and belief can help overcome bad habits and transform lives.

So says Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit. The New York Times journalist cites studies and talks to people who have first-hand experience of the power of belief and habits. They include people like Howard Schultz, who grew up in a public housing project in Brooklyn and became one of the richest people in the world as the founder of Starbucks, and Paul O’Neill, who transformed the industrial giant, the aluminium producer Alcoa, before serving as the Secretary of the Treasury under George W Bush. “I’ve been really lucky,” said Schultz. “And I really, genuinely believe that if you tell people that they have what it takes to succeed, they’ll prove you right.”

But there’s a problem. Duhigg writes:

The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit.

If only it were that easy.

It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.

Individuals and habits are all different, and so the specifics of diagnosing and changing the patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behaviour to behaviour. Giving up cigarettes is different from curbing overeating…

Charles Duhigg
Charles Duhigg

He adds:

Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be changed.

This is a book that gives you hope. Here are two stories from the book about how faith transformed the lives of alcoholics and the philosopher and psychologist  William James.

The power of faith

One group of researchers at the Alcohol Research Group in California noticed a pattern in interviews. Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold.

The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.

Researchers hated the explanation. God and spirituality are not testable hypotheses. Churches are filled with drunks who continue drinking despite a pious faith. In conversations with addicts, though, spirituality kept coming up again and again. So in 2005, a group of scientists — this time affiliated with UC Berkeley, Brown University and the National Institutes of Health — began asking alcoholics about all kinds of religious and spiritual topics.

A pattern emerged.

Those alcoholics who believed that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.

It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference.

“I wouldn’t have said this a year ago,” said Tonigan, the University of New Mexico researcher, “but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better.”

William James: If you believe, you can change

William James , who died in 1910, hailed from an accomplished family. His father was a wealthy and prominent theologian. His brother, James, was a brilliant, successful writer. Williams, into his thirties, was the unaccomplished one in the family.

William James
William James

“Today I about touched bottom,” James wrote in his diary in 1870, when he was 28 years old. “Shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard, as one unsuited to my innate aptitudes?”

Is suicide, in other words, a better choice.

Two months later, James made a decision. Before doing anything rash, he would conduct a yearlong experiment. He would spend 12 months believing that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change. There was no proof that it was true. But he would free himself to *believe*, all evidence to the contrary, that change was possible. “I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life,” he wrote in his diary. Regarding his ability to change, “I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Over the next year, he practised every day. In his diary, he wrote as if his control over himself and his choices was never in question. He got married. He started teaching in Harvard. He began spending time with Oliver Wendell Holmes, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice, and Charles Sanders Peirce, a pioneer in the study of semiotics, in a discussion group they called the Metaphysical Club. Two years after writing his diary entry, James sent a letter to the philosopher Charles Renouvier, who had expounded at length on free will. James wrote, “Thanks to you I possess for the first time an intelligible and reasonable conception of freedom… I can say that through that philosophy I am beginning to experience a rebirth of the moral life; and I can assure you, sir, that is no small thing.”

Later, he would famously write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits. Habits, he noted, are what allow us to “do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or hardly with consciousness at all”.

If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs — and becomes automatic — it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as James wrote, that bears “us irresistibly towards our destiny, whatever the latter may be”.

The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves creates the world we inhabit.

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