As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
There’s a sorrowful-sounding word for it, “ennui”, meaning listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of excitement in life. Ennui can set in when the wheels of your life are turning but you’re no longer seated in the driver’s cabin. Instead, you’re operating on autopilot or “going through the motions” as it’s referred to at times, just moving from one routine to the next.
Sometimes ennui is so overwhelming that you crave a fresh start. You toss up the idea of taking up residence somewhere exotic. Why not the Bahamas? Ruminating on “fresh starts” compels you to think about what your life would be like in another place; you think about your daily rituals, what you’d eat, wear, and how you’d spend your time. You begin to see your glittering self in a fresh light.
And, of course, in this dreamed-up “new life” you’d eat spectacularly well; you’d be fit, calm, and centred; you’d read plenty, study lots, and probably paint or write. You’d no longer pick fights with strangers, judge people harshly, or complain incessantly about the smallest things. Your glittering fresh self will live the life that you’d always dreamed about.
But as philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in The Art of Travel, the problem with going away is that you take yourself with you. Like lice attached to a strand of hair, your habits – or the way you live your life – will board the plane right alongside, and tail you like an unwanted travelling companion to your new home. Before long, your habits will ensure that your “fresh start” will feel more and more like a repeat of your old life.
“All our life,” William James wrote, “so far as it has a definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organised for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Habits explain why we often feel as though we’re on repeat – locked inside a behavioural maze. We may wish that life could be different but feel powerless to change it.
The control centre for habits in the brain is the basal ganglia, and it’s located deep, deep inside. When an activity is repeated enough times to become a habit the basal ganglia takes ownership over the set of activities (called “chunking”), relieving the rest of the brain from having to think about it. When you wash the dishes, drive your car, eat chocolate in front of the television, the basal ganglia is in the box seat while the rest of your brain has basically switched off. “Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.
“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.”
When chocolate addicts say, “Before I knew it, the chocolate was gone,” they aren’t necessarily lying. Practically speaking, the basal glandia has stored “eating chocolate” as an automatic behaviour, and when chocolate comes into view, the directive is to eat it. Without almost being aware, a chocolate addict has reached, grabbed, and swallowed it whole.
“At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behaviour become automatic,” Duhigg writes.
The science behind habits explains why for much of our life (and some scientists put the figure at 40 per cent) we are actually operating on automatic pilot. Life feels like it’s passing you by? This scientific theory on habit formation helps explain why.
The bad news is that habits are stored forever (explaining why, once learned, you never forget how to drive a car or ride a bike). You can’t rid yourself of a bad habit once it’s formed but you can over-ride it with a new routine.
The wish to flee – to start again – is often linked to a desire to break away from routine, or habit; the desire to learn new things, to behave differently, and hopefully to relieve oneself of ennui. It’s worth asking yourself: If you were to make a fresh start, what sort of things would you do each day?
From the ‘Caribbean’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.