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How Can We Make Peace a Habit?

making-peace-a-habitThe radio show “Fresh Air” fills our car as my husband David and I drive home to Colorado. Terry Gross, the host, is interviewing Charles Duhigg about his new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

From the first mention of the title, I’m already intrigued. I sit at attention, tuned into every word of the interview. I’d love to know why my husband has meticulously logged his daily exercise for almost 40 years. Why a favorite client continues to smoke when she’s stopped at least three times by now. Why, after twenty years of traveling, I still find my fingers crossed on takeoff even though my rational brain knows I have no power over the plane.

More than that, I’d love to know how to make peace a habit— in my personal life and within the world. Amid our constant conflict and strife, thoughtless actions and careless reactions, I can’t help but wonder: “How might we make peace our default, our status quo, our habit?”

I don’t mean a stereotyped peace, as in: “I’m so loose and mellow that I don’t care what happens.” I’m seeking something more like: “I care enough about you, myself, and humanity to center my thoughts and actions in goodwill and respect— as an alternative to irresponsibly throwing them around.” This isn’t some sort of bumper-sticker-simple concept of peace and it’s not always easy to articulate. According to Duhigg, however, such a shift of habits shouldn’t be difficult to achieve, as long as we’re willing to put time and energy (and a whole lot of self-awareness) into the effort.

One of the book’s reviewers, in paraphrasing Duhigg, explains that a habit, in the simplest terms, has three parts:

  1. The cue, the trigger for our habitual behavior. (Cue: We see workmate eating a mid-afternoon cookie.)
  2. The routine, the behavioral pattern we unconsciously do. (Routine: We think about joining workmate to eat a cookie. Attempt to deflect thinking. Cave in. Join workmate. Eat cookie.)
  3. The reward, the benefit we gain each time the behavioral pattern is performed. (Reward: We get to socialize with workmate. Feel mischievously like we “got away with” something we weren’t supposed to!)

These three parts knitted together become a behavioral chunk which, when done time and again, form into an unconscious habit. Simple, right? The kicker is how to apply this formula to building habits we want, such as the habit of peace.

As it does every year, last week the United Nations marked the International Day of Peace. This occasion reminds us that, whether in our day-to-day relationships or on the world stage, peace and accord are just as possible within our repertoire of actions as are conflict and war. After hearing the Duhigg interview, I can’t help wondering: Is it a matter of habit that, by and large, we haven’t shifted this one-time occasion to a commitment we live every moment of the year?

I recognize that I don’t yet know how to do this personally. And collectively we are still very far from adopting this habit. But Duhigg’s ideas give me hope. His simple formula already has me thinking:

  • What cues could we build that offer peaceful reactions? It’s a powerful concept that we can actually seek out and/or create the cues we need.
  • What routines would engender peaceful responses to our triggers? Again, think of the empowerment of controlling our own behavior. We really can take these patterns and bend them toward our aims.
  • How are we currently rewarded to fight? What rewards could we build for peaceful action?

Those last two questions really give me pause for thought. Like so many principles of sustainability on which I coach my clients, a mission as sweeping as world peace needs roots in our personal lives. I know I, for one, am searching for cues, routines, and rewards for peaceful approaches to my difficult situations. In those answers will be the seeds of something that may grow much larger.

Photo by h.koppdelaney