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I have been experimenting with a discovery I made about habits. It began with a lot of other historical observations but came to a clearer applicability in the grocery store checkout line. Basically, it is, 1. see a problem, 2. decide to cope with the problem, 3. propose a method for responding to that class of problems, 4. mentally practice that response several times a day for several days, and then at the completion of the sequence, 5. reward yourself for cultivating that good behavior. Here is the simple and obvious discovery I made when doing that sequence – 5+ reward your self instantly when you do a good thing. It used to be called “patting yourself on the back,” but that idea had a slightly pejorative connotation. Furthermore, that patting action didn’t have an automatic connection to the reward centers of the brain.

What I discovered was so obvious it doesn’t seem like much at first exposure, but it is based on the observation that the face is emotionally connected to the brain. That is, when the brain feels an emotion it is expressed in the face, and secondly, when the conscious mind intentionally places an emotional expression on the face it is felt in the brain.

The importance here is that people can voluntarily control their facial muscles and thus their emotional expressions and thus their brains will automatically respond. That is what professional actors do, and to help themselves with that procedure they intentionally think about what they are portraying as if it is real. Sometimes they prepare themselves for an event by thinking about some appropriate emotion-provoking event in their personal history. It’s called the Stanislavski method of acting. For example, I can easily provoke my autonomic system’s sweating response by thinking about running up Strawberry Canyon trail in the Berkeley Hills. I did that run hundreds of times, and it is now wired into my autonomic nervous system to sweat when I think of it. I can easily choose to think or not to think about that experience and thus easily choose to sweat or after sweating choose not to continue sweating by not thinking about running up that hill.

The power of the grocery store checkout line experience is similar in that I can choose to think about that sequence of events and with the successful conclusion of those thoughts, I can smile for two seconds. That brief smile is a positive reinforcement to my brain for that specific behavior and I can cultivate it intentionally. I can practice, in my imagination, a sequence of intentional good behaviors and at the end of the sequence reward myself with a smile. It is an easy sequence that I can learn and an easy sequence to practice and the important part is that it gives me the ability to control the creation of my habits.

The instant I do an intentional good deed I smile for two seconds and after a while in the right conditions, the behavior is automatic.