Habits That Kill

December, 2004
In this issue:
1. Newsbriefs: New Class Available for Masters degree in Organizational Leadership
Abstract for My New Book Available Upon Request
2. December Editorial: Habits That Kill
3. More Newsbriefs: Op-Ed Available Upon Request
Inspired by My Audience
4. Quote of the Month: Peter Kingsley
5. Next Month’s Editorial

New Class Available for Masters Degree in Organizational Leadership

The first accredited Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership class got underway a few weeks ago and program director Mel Toomey reports a successful launch; the first residential session was held on the East Coast of the U.S. and the next time the class comes together with be the end of January and beginning of February 2005 when I will be lecturing on “conscious leadership;” Mel also tells me that the next MAOL class is now being formed and classes will start in April and registrations are now open (for more information); be sure to tell them you heard about the MAOL program from me.

Abstract for My New Book Available Upon Request

In this time of seemingly incurable divisiveness in the U.S. and the world, how can I possibly maintain my optimism about “the better future” I wrote about in my last book? I must admit that there are times when I wonder about that myself; while there are certainly days when despair becomes my housemate, my optimism prevails in the longer term; the book I’m presently writing has a working title of The New Human: Beyond the Naked Ape and in it I get more specific about the kind of world we can have – a world of compassion, connectedness and sufficiency – despite some of the evidence we see in the world today.


I frequently write about how addictive we are becoming in our Western lifestyles and, as a result, am often asked how I distinguish an addiction from a habit. It seems some people use the terms almost interchangeably, perhaps a way of diminishing the negative effects of some obsessive behavior – a common practice for people who have addictive tendencies. Let me make a few distinctions between the two.

First, we all have habits like reading a newspaper in the same sequence, driving to work by the same route or shaving the same way. There’s nothing harmful about these habits. They are actually useful since certain tasks become “routinized” and take less of our attention. Secondly, while it may take a certain amount of willpower to change a habit, such as which pants leg we step into first when we dress, it is relatively easy to break. Thirdly, habits are not a major focus in one’s life; they are incidental to living, perhaps even enhancing to one’s ability to enjoy life.

To sum up, habits are not inherently harmful, they can be stopped if there’s an advantage in doing so and the habit is not one’s main focus.

Habits that are harmful to oneself and/or others, are not easily broken and are paramount in one’s life are very likely addictions. When I smoked cigarettes many years ago I was addicted. In those days it was commonly called a habit, even a “nasty habit” which allowed me to maintain the delusion that I could stop anytime I wished. I was well on my way to emphysema and still I continued my pack a day “habit.” My habit was harming my health and, as we have learned since, the secondhand smoke threatened everyone around me.

Smoking was not something I could quit whenever I chose and my denial finally ended in 1974 when I stopped. But it wasn’t at all like changing the way I read the paper. It took lots of work!

When one is addicted to anything (drugs, cigarettes, shopping, romance, sex, work, alcohol, etc.) the focus of the addiction (the “it”) has become the primary relationship in the addict’s life. Their life revolves around whether or not they have enough of “it” in their life so it is always on their minds. It dominates their day-to-day existence. They come to trust in their relationship with “it” more than their other relationships. They become dependent upon the feeling, artificial as it may be, that they get when they indulge in the addiction.

A wife or husband, a lover, one’s children, even one’s relationship with God may take second place to the thing to which one is addicted, be it a substance like booze or an experience like romantic infatuation. People who are close to addicts have witnessed their loved ones seeming to care more for whatever they are addicted to than any person.

To sum up, addictions are harmful, often self-destructive habits where the “it” becomes the primary relationship and dominates one’s thinking, provides a short-term feeling of relief and can’t be broken easily.

One of the least appreciated addictions in the West is the widespread compulsive thinking, not constructive or creative thought, but thinking that is completely obsessive. Obviously, we need to think in order to function in the world. But we have come to put such importance on our thinking and it has become so dominant in our lifestyle that some of the ways we think can now be considered addictions.

I recently watched a television program titled “Explorations” on The National Geographic Channel. This show in the series was an historic look at human stress. It explored how “fight or flight” responses to danger in our caveman days helped keep us alive. The stress produced when being stalked by a lion or chased by a tiger helped us survive. But this stress was episodic and very rare. We did not spend the each day running from predators. It was a rare occurrence, but we could deal with it when it occurred and, if we were fortunate, we managed to either escape or slay our attacker.

When these rare events occurred, stress served humans. It allowed all the mind’s and body’s energies to be focused exclusively on the immediate danger. Aches and pains disappeared in light of a clearer and more present danger. Immune systems shut down since they were not needed for those few moments when all our attention was focused on escape or slaying the attacker, be it animal or human. A stressed body and an alert mind were useful for the situation, allocating all necessary resources to deal with the circumstances at hand.

The program then examined modern day stress when our lives are much freer of these types of threats. We are no longer facing the threat of tigers and lions. Barring military combat or a criminal attack there are few life or death situations faced by most people today. So, where does the stress come from and what effect does it have?

National Geographic identified our thoughts as the primary generators of our stress in modern days. There is no leopard pouncing upon us nor are we under direct personal attack; our lives are quite tame by caveman/fight or flight standards; yet we cause ourselves stress by obsessively imagining worst case scenarios, worrying about what dreadful things might happen to us, envying what others have and comparing it to ourselves and complaining about just about everything. Our compulsive thinking is what causes the stress in today’s hectic and fast-paced lifestyle. National Geographic labeled our thoughts as the “modern predators” and pointed to our thinking patterns as the biggest threat to our survival!

The ability to summon all the body’s energies through stress so we can survive in one era of our evolution has devolved such that now this incredible natural asset for survival has been turned against us. Instead of being a tool for dealing with threats our thinking has become a threat of its own.

Our addiction to thinking and attachment to what we think is now a major health hazard for many of us in the industrialized world: the primary predator of our day! Addictive thinking supplants emotional authenticity, real relaxation and those quiet times that are so essential to healthy lifestyles. We become out of balance. We begin “living in our heads” and forgetting how to simply be with Nature, with one another, and to be fully-feeling human beings.

If you find yourself thinking compulsively, unable to stop, identifying more with your thoughts than people, getting stressed and obsessively fretting over something, you might be addicted.

Self deception is another distinction between habits and addictions for you to consider. In his 1997 book Addictive Thinking, Abraham Twerski, MD, founder and medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, PA, explains that addictive thought is inherently self-deceptive yet it offers a superficial logic that can be misleading to the addict as well as to the addict’s friends and family members. While people often can see addictions in other people and call it to their attention, thus challenging any self-deception, compulsive thinking is so widespread in our Western culture that finding someone to intervene may be difficult. Thus we must end our own self deception.

One statistic that comes to mind is that Americans suffer a 33% higher rate of heart attacks on Monday morning, facing a return to the workplace. Whether these people are fretting, worrying or simply dreading going back to work, their thinking is causing the life-threatening stress, not any actual threat like a lion or a tiger.

Mere habits won’t kill us. But those unhealthy compulsive habits that I’m calling addictions will kill us eventually. Some just take longer than others.
NEXT MONTH’S EDITORIAL: Living and Working in the Age of Cleavage
“Learning about ourselves is rather inconvenient because it turns the world we live in upside down.” – Peter Kingsley, author, Reality

Op-Ed Available Upon Request

My latest op-ed submission to UPI is entitled “We Are All Americans”…we’ll see who picks it up but, in the meanwhile.

Inspired by My Audience

I just gave a talk to a group of HR people for a large well-established California company at their one-day off-site and was inspired by their willingness to look at their own patterns of behavior and ways they add to the dysfunctionality of their organization; it is so ironic that I’m hired as an “inspirational speaker” and so often I am also inspired, like a synergistic flow of appreciation that goes both ways; it feels so great!

About John Renesch

Better Future NEWS is prepared monthly by John Renesch, a San Francisco writer, business futurist, and mentor.
His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. For a list of all the SERVICES John offers, go to Services.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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