Science points to how bad habits form, but mindfulness helps us break free

Research shows almost half of what we do is habitual, and this makes sense. Habits save energy and resources. If we never developed habits, we’d be exhausted by breakfast. And yet we know from experience not all habits are beneficial. If you’re aware of a habit you’d like to break, you may be wondering if meditation can help. The research says yes, meditation works to stop bad habits.

How Bad Habits Form

Habits form as our body and brain seek the most efficient way to stay alive. Imagine if every day we had to re-learn how to brush our teeth or tie our shoes? Habits let us perform necessary tasks without thinking too hard about how. Habits are also an efficient means of avoiding discomfort. When we’re hungry, for example, the brain lays out a habitual pathway that remembers what hunger feels like, where to get energy-rich food, and how good it feels to eat it. The brain gets so efficient at this, the next time hunger arises, we know exactly what to do.

Because eating when we were hungry felt so good, the brain applies this habitual pathway to other types of discomfort too. What if we ate when we were bored, frustrated, sad, or lonely? Maybe that would feel good, too! Replace food with anything that once solved a problem for you, and you can see how habits are formed. Habits become ‘bad’ when they no longer benefit us and instead cause harm. It’s difficult to unlearn these well-worn pathways.

But that’s where meditation comes in. We can rewire our brain.

Breaking the Cycle of Habitual Patterns with Meditation

Harmful habits may include behaviors, reactions, or thought patterns. We repeatedly fall into the bad habit cycle thanks to unawareness. Also, we mistakenly think bad habits solve our problems because at one time, they did. Eating a cupcake when we felt sad may have temporarily made us happier. But the good feeling didn’t last long. The cycle of sadness, cupcake, sadness, cupcake continued. Through meditation, we develop awareness, mindfulness, self-compassion and wisdom. These qualities help us break free from habitual cycles. Let’s take a closer look at how.

Mindfulness and Awareness

Mindfulness is the first step toward successful habit change. Mindfulness meditation strengthens the recognition of our behavior, its triggers, and consequences. Mindfulness is the kind, curious exploration of our present moment experience. Once we’re mindful, we’re ready to apply awareness, which actually gives us the tools to disrupt our habitual patterns. Through meditation, we learn to be both more mindful and aware.

Try the following meditation prompts for breaking bad habits:

  • Explore the trigger: What does craving, desire, or the urge to do something feel like in your body? Is it constant and steady, or changing? Is it permanent, or impermanent?
  • Explore the habit: What does it feel like in your body as you partake in this habit? What type of satisfaction (or not) do you get from this habit? For how long does that outcome last?
  • Explore the consequences: What happens in the aftermath of your habitual behavior? How does it make you feel? Is the outcome of your behavior what you had hoped for? What might you do differently next time?

Apply mindfulness to the habit cycle, and you may find your craving is more manageable than you thought. It comes and goes just like thoughts do. Or, you may realize the habit itself is not as rewarding as you once thought. One cupcake felt good, but more is not better and results in unwanted consequences.

Developing Self-Compassion and Wisdom

The self-compassion developed through meditation makes letting go of bad habits easier. With self-compassion we learn to approach change from a place of self-love, not from a place of self-hatred. Meditation teaches us we are not our habits. All humans everywhere, regardless of our behavior, are worthy of happiness and freedom from pain. We are each deserving of positive change.

With meditation, we see through the misunderstanding that bad habits will lead to happiness. Nothing outside ourselves is capable of relieving our pain, because all phenomena are impermanent. Instead, we connect to the permanent solution, the abundant happiness that’s available within. By freeing us from looking outside ourselves for solutions, meditation frees us from bad habits.