Your Habits Are Killing Your Hope
How Lent can make room for hope in our life, in a way backed by psychology research
Let’s talk about bad habits. Not nail-biting or afternoon lattes, but bad habits of mind.
One of my intentions with this newsletter is to show how the tools of Practical Hope are everywhere and can strengthen our personal faith as much as our congregations. So what can Practical Hope offer on this first Sunday of Lent?
The past decade or so has seen a lot of writing on habits. Brushing your teeth is a good habit; picking at your nails is a bad one. But once you understand how habits work, you can use them to your advantage. What triggers you to want that afternoon latte (a bad habit in this case), and what can you do to flip it into a more fruitful habit? How can you nurture a habit of, say, exercise instead?
Jack Mezirow was a scholar who wrote about adult education. (This isn’t just for professors— we are always learning, whether we know it or not.) Mezirow coined the term “habits of expectation.” If something happens to us over and over, we come to expect that it will happen again. We form a “habit of expectation. “
When you’re about to see a person you love, you expect to be happy! That’s nearly always a good habit that makes you happy even before it happens! But like any habit, some are good, and some are bad. But bad habits of expectation form when we’re not paying attention. In fact, Mezirow might say that our lack of awareness is the very thing that allows them to be unhealthy.
I experienced a perfect example a couple years ago. It was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I received a daily evening newsletter with the latest updates from scientists and public health officials. This newsletter was not sensational in its presentation; it was just the facts. It is essential to stay up on such developments just as a citizen. I also needed the information to help me make decisions with my job.
The problem is that, in those days, all the facts were terrible. Every. Single. Day… brought more news of how bad things were getting, often in proportions that felt apocalyptic. Even the positive stories they tried to work in reinforced how bad things were, stories like “hero nurse saves some of the many people who are dying.”
What I noticed, eventually, was that I dreaded opening that email. It would sit unopened in my inbox, and every time I saw it, a dark cloud would descend. It was just facts, yet there was something soul-draining about it. I had formed a bad habit of expectation that led to such a strong expectation of negativity that I felt depressed even before reading it.
The answer to bad, hope-killing habits, Mezirow says, is reflection. One cannot change the world’s circumstances— the info in that newsletter was still vital for me to read. But once I was aware of how the pattern was affecting me, I made a simple tweak: when the email arrived in the evening, I instantly snoozed it until morning. By doing so, I mentally put it ”in its place” in a more profound way by saying, “the facts of this difficult time are important, but I refuse to let them define my life. I’ll read it as part of my job tomorrow; this evening will be defined by joy of life and my family.”
This shift was no accident. Research has shown that the antidote to a bad habit of expectation is reflection. Simply being aware of what we have come to expect alerts us to where our expectations are harming us.
My research shows that many bad habits of expectation kill hope.
Let me repeat this to make sure you hear it: the key to turning bad habits of expectation into good ones is reflection. And since bad habits kill hope, it means reflection is necessary for a life of hope.
So… is it obvious now how hope and Lent work together? We need reflection to help us see the forces in our life that cause our hope to falter. We need fasting (not necessarily of food) to provide space for reflection. And we need prayer to allow God to reflect for us, in us, and through us.
The result is hope— the hope of Easter. But that’s a story for 40 days for now.
However you reflect this lent, do so with the expectation of hope.