“Zombie Mode Is Not Nearly as Delicious as Diving Deeply Into Fully Living Life Every Day”

Portrait of Judson Brewer

I was very pleased to get the chance to talk to Judson Brewer, because he and I are interested in so many of the same subjects.

He’s a leading figure in the “science of self-mastery”—oh, self-mastery! How I love that subject; it so appeals to my Upholder side.

He wears many hats and has many balls in the air (to mix metaphors horribly): Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor in Medicine and Psychiatry at UMass Medical School; adjunct faculty at Yale University; research affiliate at MIT.

One of his specialties is using mindfulness programs to address addiction. He’s developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments (e.g. www.goeatrightnow.com, www.cravingtoquit.com). He has also studied the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness using standard and real-time fMRI.  In 2012, he founded Claritas MindSciences to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for eating, smoking and other behavior change into the marketplace.

In just a few weeks, his new book will hit the shelves: The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love, Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

I was so interested to hear what Jud had to say about habits.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Jud: I’ve been blown away by how habits are the basis for so much of our lives—from smartphones to romantic love to getting caught up in our own thinking to even how we judge “right” and “wrong” in the world. Now I understand more where the phrase “we are creatures of…” comes from. And it’s amazing how much our modern scientific tools such as probing people in their natural environments via smartphone technology and detecting brain changes using fMRI machines have helped fill in the picture of what’s going on. All of these seem to repeatedly point to the same end: that we are tapping into a very evolutionarily conserved process that was set up for survival (trigger, behavior, reward).

Perhaps the most fascinating part of my research and clinical work was a paradoxical discovery: that we can tap into this natural reward-based learning process and by simply paying careful attention to different habit loops, we can learn to step out of them (paying careful attention to the “reward” is critical here).

In our clinical and brain studies, my lab has found that simple mindfulness trainings to help us pay attention and build awareness around our habits can have big effects on changing them (e.g. smoking, stress and emotional eating); our research has shown that these practices can not only help us quit smoking and change eating habits but literally change how our brains fire and wire.

What are some simple habits that consistently make you happier?

Practicing simple acts of kindness. Being curious. Smiling.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That changing habits is less an act of force or will than focusing on seeing the “reward” more clearly. I’ve also learned that curiosity is a key ingredient here.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Judgment (of myself and others).

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Being kind. Listening carefully and completely when in conversation with someone. Exercising (running, mountain biking).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Eating healthfully. Looking back, I think the roots of this started to grow when I was racing BMX bikes in junior high school. I started noticing that when I ate donuts and drank soda before a race, I’d quickly run out of steam—which I later learned was probably due to getting a sugar rush and subsequent crash. As an adult, I’ve really started noticing how my body and mind feel after eating junk food (especially refined sugar) as compared to healthy food. It’s amazing how much wisdom comes from simply paying attention to the process! I couldn’t maintain a “don’t eat ice cream because it’s bad for you” mindset (which was totally cognitive/thinking in nature), but now when a craving comes on to pig out, can more easily remember what it felt like last time I ate an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. This helps me stop with a small serving, while at the same time enjoy what I’m eating even more because I’m not mentally leaning in for the next bite.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Definitely a Questioner!

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Both—it is wonderful that we don’t have to relearn how to tie our shoes every day, and also great to pay attention to how much of our lives we spend on “autopilot” so that we can step out of old habits that no longer serve us, or may get in the way of really embracing life. I know that sounds hokey, but its true. Zombie mode is not nearly as delicious as diving deeply into and fully living life every day, no matter what is happening.

More on Judson Brewer.

If you’d like to hear more from Jud Brewer, you can watch his TED talk, “A simple way to break a bad habit”:



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