There is something about the Lenten season that makes me want to participate in the practice of sacrifice, of giving something up. I am not Catholic, but more Christian denominations are beginning to pick up the practices of observing Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. I have always been drawn to the idea of a spiritual, mental, or physical reset, and Lent is a great opportunity to do all three. Over the years, I have not once been successful in observing Lent through the giving up of something significant or meaningful in my life. I have given up sweets, social media, and negative self-talk. I have even gone the route of simplification by getting rid of a bag of items from my house every day. Each time, I would make it almost to the first weekend. So, yes, we’re talking two or three full days, max. Granted, I was not giving these things up for any reason other than using it as a great opportunity to commit to something and strategically aligning it to when others were doing the same.
Unfortunately, many people struggle with the same commitment I did. Just like those New Year’s resolutions that have already faded, our commitment to Lent is little more than an effort to drop some bad habits or pick up some new ones. I could go the direction of identifying and aligning with your “why”, which would make sense given the powerful and deep meaning of Lent, but I am actually going a different direction with this post. And to be completely transparent, this post is not about Lent, which is vastly more significant than simply changing behavior. Lent is simply the catalyst for the conversation.
The science of behavior change says that in order to change a behavior, you don’t just stop one behavior, you must also start a different one. Every thought or behavior is based on a set of neural pathways in the brain. When you attempt to stop, that neural connection is still trying to fire. It’s like walking down a trail you have walked 100s of times before and suddenly there is a huge puddle that has formed in the middle of it. When you are paying attention, you can remember to detour early enough and go down a trail that may not be as clear. But, when your mind wanders just a little, your habit takes over. Before you know it, you are standing in the middle of the puddle. Habit is a difficult thing to change, but it can be done. The key is to not just take away but to replace.
When you are trying to change a thought or behavior pattern, you can’t just stop that pattern, you must replace it so that your brain can build a new neural pathway. Take smoking, for example. Smokers (and former smokers) often say the most difficult part of quitting is not the nicotine itself but the habit of holding he cigarette or doing something with their hands, taking breaks, visiting with people outside, doing something. When they just stop smoking, there is a void. Their neural pathways keep trying to fire, and at the end of the path is a cigarette. Unfortunately, many former smokers pick up new, bad habits such as snacking, chewing on a pen, scrolling social media, drinking, using illicit drugs, etc. Yes, they have stopped smoking, but often the new behaviors can be equally or even more damaging than the original behavior. To give our commitments a fighting chance, we must consciously replace one behavior with another, (almost) equally enjoyable, behavior. If I’m trying to make a Lent connection here, fasting during Lent was an opportunity to spend more time in prayer and grow in their faith. The intent was not necessarily to find an “equally enjoyable” activity, though I do believe that spending time in conversation and relationship with Christ is a pretty incredible replacement for anything else here on earth.
Additionally, by creating new, positive, pattens of behavior through new neural pathways, you aren’t fighting the change with willpower alone. Science has proven that willpower is finite. Our stores start strong at the beginning of the day, but every choice and decision pulls from our willpower stores. By the evening, when we often need it the most, we are completely out. Through the creation of new pathways, we can take the pressure off of our willpower by simply engaging in another behavior that we enjoy. That is really key here. We must get a similar “good feeling” from that new behavior. When you want to snack, it sometimes helps to take a bubble bath. When you want to scroll social media, read a good book you’ve been wanting to read. When you hear yourself getting down, talk to a good friend on the phone, take a walk, or watch a funny or motivational video. In order to successfully create new pathways and take some of the pressure off of willpower, these new behaviors must trigger some of the same responses, such as the release of dopamine or endorphins in the brain that say, “Yes, we like this. We want more of this.” Yes, it is possible to create new habits and pathways without enjoying the new behaviors, but you will really need to tap into those willpower stores. If you want to eat more vegetables, adding some butter and salt or ranch really help make it more bearable, especially at first. If you want to start going to the gym more, take a book on tape (what do we call that now?) or use that time to catch up on your favorite show. Over time, these neural pathways will grow stronger and you will actually begin to acquire the “taste” of healthy food, exercise, water, making sales calls, vacuuming, or whatever.
Given that we are in a period of intense “tightening of the budget”, I am going to continue February’s Fiscal Fast through Lent, which also just happens to be the 40 days leading up to my 40th birthday. Although it wasn’t too difficult, because we just didn’t have any money to spend, I still found myself struggling from time to time. Gratitude is a powerful tool for improved wellbeing and has been linked to many positive benefits such as reduced depression and increased happiness through the increase in dopamine in the brain. I believe replacing my temptation to spend with conscious gratitude will not only help me get through those tempting moments, but I will also reap the rewards in terms of increased wellbeing or happiness. When you express gratitude for what you have, you teach your brain to see things more positively. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have or can’t buy, I will intentionally focus on what I do have, which should result in me seeing things a little more positively across the board.
How will you replace that void and create a new pathway? How will you use this season of sacrifice and commitment to replace destructive behaviors or negative thought patterns with new, positive ones?
When someone asks what you are giving up for Lent, don’t forget to mention what you are gaining this Lenten season and all year through.