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(CNN) – Many of us know what kinds of habits could make us healthier, more successful, and probably happier.
It could be being more mindful, drinking more shakes, or training for a 5K run. However, meditation can seem boring, cooking a healthy meal can seem like too much work, and maintaining a lazy routine of not exercising is very comfortable and familiar.
Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, has battled many of these same obstacles. As the co-founder and co-director of Wharton’s Behavior Change for Good initiative, she now dedicates her career to studying habit development.
Milkman has worked with the White House, Google, the American Red Cross, and Walmart, helping their employees develop better habits around saving for retirement, exercising, and more. In his new book, “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” he guides readers through the The latest science on behavior change, with practical tips that can help you reduce stress, improve your mental health, and live a better life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: Why should you want to change? Will it make me happier?
Katy Milkman: It’s a rare person I know who isn’t looking to change in some way. There is a lot of guru out there, but there is not much science that can help all those people who want to change.
We know from much research that people are generally very resistant to making a change. We feel comfortable in our customs. Any deviation from what we are used to doing feels like a loss, and the losses tend to be larger than the gains. We are likely to increase our dedication to an existing course of action beyond what is rational because we place too much emphasis on what economists call sunk costs, costs that are sunk. And that makes us resistant to change.
All those forces pushing us against change mean that we are probably changing very little. If you can convince people to change, it will seem like it has a benefit.
CNN: Many of us know that we would be happier or less stressed if we saved more money, ate better, or slept more. Why is there such a difference between what we know is good for us and what we do?
Milkman: This gap between action and intention is very wide, because there are forces that work against actually doing what is good for us and that make it difficult to carry it out.
Knowledge is not enough. We need tools and tactics, and frankly science, to steer us towards what will help us overcome those barriers, rather than just the knowledge that we must do something different in life.
CNN: I’d like to start meditating to reduce my stress levels, but the idea sounds stressful.
Milkman: This sounds like an information gap in terms of understanding what tactics might be effective for a person in my situation. One suggestion would be to use social forces as a tool to try to address that barrier: what I call “copy and paste.” It turns out that it is very simple, when we are surrounded by people who are achieving goals that we also want to achieve.
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We tell people to deliberately copy and paste their peers. If you want to perform like someone in the gym, that improves your results even more. Although we naturally copy our peers trying to figure out, we can ask, “Hey, what’s working for you?” Be really mindful of copying and pasting. Ask ‘How did you start? How do you include it in your agenda? ».
CNN: I would love to spend more time exercising, but I am addicted to watching Netflix.
Milkman: The solution in that case is very simple, and consists of making a “package of temptations”, that is, linking these two things. Netflix can only be watched while exercising. And all of a sudden, people find themselves exercising to see what’s happening on their favorite shows, and they’ll probably be exercising longer. The training will be less unpleasant, because time will fly while they are watching the series, and they will spend less time at home watching television when they should be doing other things.
This is a technique that I have studied and tested. You associate something pleasant, such as a source of entertainment, with exercise. We have tested it with the audio novels. They can significantly increase the rate at which people go to the gym, but of course they can also be “tempted” in other areas of life.
The real principle behind this is that it is about turning something that seems like a chore into a pleasure. By linking it to a temptation, you also reduce access to that temptation. In reality, you are solving two problems at the same time.
CNN: Your friend and colleague Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit,” argues that a signal-based plan is by far the best tool she has found for positive behavior change. How does this work?
Milkman: Many of us, when we make a plan, it is rather a vague intention. We say, ‘I want to meditate more. That’s my plan”. But a signal-based plan would be in a different way, like “If x happens, then I’ll meditate,” and you fill in the blank. What is that x? A good plan might be: ‘If it’s noon on a work day. I will stop what I am doing for 15 minutes and meditate.
The sign is noon and work day because maybe your work week is different than your weekend, so you can make plans that have signs that are specific to those types of contingencies.
You are much more likely to stick with these signal-based plans, and there are several reasons for this. One of them is that the signal is a memory trigger. The way we store information is based on signals, and you’re less likely to forget when something triggers at a specific time because, oh, it’s noon! This means that my brain is telling me this is when to do it.
Second, it is no longer a great intention. It is a concrete commitment. We don’t like to breach our commitments, even if they are to ourselves. That feels different than saying, “Oh, I’ll save it for later.” If I started meditating and I don’t, I am breaking a strong commitment. Between the memory and the commitment, those are two of the reasons that planning works.
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CNN: You say your most important idea may be that we don’t have to make a new habit, like running or meditating, at the same time every day. Instead, being flexible helps us stay in the habit. Because it is important?
Milkman: It simply opposes what everyone who studies the habit, to date, believed to be true. That is the first part. The other reason it seems so important to me is that when I think about what I want to study for the next 20 years, it helped me crystallize it.
Understanding what it takes to persist after a slip, or to keep pursuing a goal, even when conditions are imperfect, is the most important thing. The best situation is rarely the situation we find ourselves in, and all too often it is the situation that researchers study. Circumstances are usually not ideal.
Slippage is normal. We relapse. How do we get back up afterwards? I think this insight into the importance of elastic habits is a first look at the kind of flexibility that is going to be needed, and the kind of solidity that we need to help people develop their plans and their habits and behaviors, if we are to create a change that is truly lasting.