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Creatures of Habit Are Happy

Creatures of Habit Are Happy
Creatures of Habit Are Happy

Meaning in life is generally considered as derived from the big ticket items of making a difference in one’s life and of having a purpose larger than oneself that makes one’s life have significance. However, on a daily basis, most of us do not live our lives in grand gestures, but in routines. In fact, routines are the fabric of our life. Routines are a common part of our day-to-day living. They make life predictable and offer simple pleasures, such as drinking your morning coffee and streaming the news on your smartphone. But can these daily routines be linked to meaning in life?

Routines and Ruts

Routines may also risk falling into a rut. Routines and becoming routinized are different. Routines may be driven to achieve a goal; for example, mid-19th century British novelist Anthony Trollope rose early and had a schedule of writing a set number of words each morning prior to going to work as a postmaster. However, when routines become rigid and fixed, they are firmly established and can become ruts. For example, someone whose schedule is unvarying, such as rising early every day, working out at a precise time, eating the same food at a fixed time, and who has no room for a change in their schedule is in a rut. That type of routinized living can risk a very narrow experience of life. Moreover, some research suggests that when routines are “set in stone” it can lead to cognitive rigidity which is an obstacle to creativity. For example, doing things the same way all the time or thinking about problems in the same way can be obstacles to creative and flexible thinking. This type of routinized life, while decreasing anxiety in that life is lived in a predictable manner, can also become shallow, automatic, and impede insight (Tournier et al., 2012). On the side against routines fostering well-being are the risks associated with being too habitual in one’s thinking and behavior.

Researchers Ersche and colleagues (2017) developed a “Creature of Habit Scale” and differentiated between habits as routine behavior and automatic responses. In their scale, items such as “I tend to like routine” and always “trying to get the same seat on the bus…or in church; or parking their car or bike in the same place” (p. 80), characterized routine behavior. Automatic responses were defined as behaviors “running on autopilot” particularly focused on mindless eating. That type of automatic behavior may be related to exposure to stress and a coping mechanism. Ersche et al. hypothesized that there may be unique neural substrates at play in these two types of habits. It is possible that neural pathways “ruts” may develop in response to repetitive behavior patterns. On the psychological side, those whose habits are fixed in their acts may be vulnerable to compulsive behavior.

Routines and Meaning

Can a preference for routines risk loss of meaning in life and falling into the routinization rut? Heintzelman and King (2019) examined how routines in thinking and behavior were associated with meaning in life. They sampled men and women from Amazon Mechanical Turk workers (described as a crowdsourcing website for businesses to remotely hire workers). The workers ranged in age from 18 to 72 and were primarily classified as White/European American, 76%, 7% were Black/African American, and 6% Latinx American.

The workers were presented with questions to assess the trait of routinization. Among the questions asked was if one strongly disagreed or agreed as to whether they did things pretty much the same each day and found that a well-ordered life with regular hours as their preference. The researchers also measured the dislike of disruption to workers’ daily routine. Lastly, meaning in life was assessed by whether they agreed or disagreed that overall their life felt meaningful, that they felt they had made a difference, and their life made sense. Interestingly, a preference for routine was positively related to meaning in life; but disliking disrupting routine was not.

Researchers have also found that everyday routines can build resilience and afford a way to cope with stressors. Routines can foster well-being under adverse situations or prolonged stress and provide protection during periods of challenge. Keeping up a routine can help moderate the effect of exposure to severe trauma (Hou et al., 2020). In this manner, through mediating the negative effects of adverse circumstances, routines may enhance meaning.

Although there may be many ways to measure routine, and there is the good, bad, and ugly associated with its variations, finding that routines can enhance well-being is comforting. The fact is that at the most granular level, our lives are largely lived in the sphere of habits. Perhaps we creatures of habit can all take comfort in Ersche’s and colleagues’ conclusion, “Life is not only made meaningful through extraordinary experiences but also in its daily living” (p. 697).

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