A recent feature in The Onion pokes some fun at the public response to Whitney Houston’s autopsy report. One person says, “The real tragedy is that she isn’t still alive to hear my opinion about her death.”
There are some opinions that matter, however—if they can help shed light on ways to prevent similar tragedies, for instance. Following Houston’s death, Charles Duhigg, New York Times reporter and author of a relatively new book about habits, speculated about the reasons behind her ultimate failure to reap the benefits of repeated rehab—and more specifically, why 12-step programs didn’t work adequately for her.
First off, he points out that any “habit loop”—whether drinking or drugging or something else—consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Taking alcoholism as an example of a habit/addiction, he states that groups like AA (or NA or GA, and so on) often provide a way to form new but similar habit loops.
Many alcoholics, say studies, essentially suffer from habit dysfunctions. They have learned to react to a cue (‘I’m stressed. I need to relax at a bar.’) with a routine (‘Bud Light, please.’) to receive a reward (‘I always feel better after unloading to my friends over a beer.’)
A.A. just tweaks that formula slightly. There is a still the same basic cue (‘I’m stressed. I need to relax at a meeting.’), a slightly different routine (‘My name is Jim, and I’m an alcoholic.’) and, essentially, the same reward (‘I always feel better after unloading to my friends over coffee.’)
So, here’s why support groups may not have worked for Houston:
…(W)hat Ms. Houston couldn’t do — because her life catered to the belief that she was peerless, the star of the show, an incomparable diva — was find a group of peers whom she could compare herself to, and believe that if they can struggle and persevere, so can I. Her life was not constructed to subsume her ego into the communalism of a group. And so she never found a safe place to practice believing she could change. And so as soon as the pressures hit, all the new habits broke down, and the old patterns took over.
Whether Duhigg has nailed Houston’s particular issues or not, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, contains important wisdom for those stuck in unwanted habits and addictions.
As Kirkus Reviews points out, Duhigg’s all about the brain science:
…Duhigg demonstrates how automatic behavior, good or bad, can grow from a repeated decision that gets lodged in the basal ganglia…Animal trainers are already familiar with this information. For improvement, the trick is to keep the cue and reward, but change the routine. The belief that acquiring a new ‘keystone habit’ can really be achieved is necessary…
Cultivating the belief that the habit can be changed is where the power of support groups comes in. People go to them, hear others speak, and start to believe that if others can get better so can they. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, on reviewing Duhigg: “His chapter on ‘keystone habits’ alone would justify the book.”
In the video below, Duhigg explains how he changed his own habit of reaching for the afternoon chocolate chip cookie. Before you go thinking, Oh, big deal! A little cookie habit?, maybe you should also know that Duhigg has struggled with eating issues much of his life. It was doing this research on habits that finally led to him learning to eat and exercise differently in order to achieve desired weight loss and fitness.