The term “willpower” has become a misnomer for what we believe is our ability to overcome obstacles or life’s difficulties. What many of us forget, is that our ability to accomplish our goals is not predetermined by how much “willpower” we have, but in actuality is indirectly influenced by the accumulation of our life experiences. By examining our experiences, we can gain a better understanding of how we have become to be who we are today. Furthermore, wherever we may be in our lives, by looking at our environments we can see how it is maintaining our negative (or positive) patterns of behavior and habits. We can observe whether our environments are conducive to who we want to be or what we want to achieve. Researchers have found, time and again, the gravity of our environment in shaping our behaviors. For example, we are more likely to behave honestly if we believe we are being watched; our surroundings determine whether we are more likely to litter; if we do not receive human touch and engage in social interactions with other humans, we lose our abilities to walk upright or to ever use a toilet.

Many of our behaviors are triggered by what social scientists call antecedents, while the behaviors are maintained by consequences. That is, certain settings, people, or experiences will produce a patterned set of behaviors from us, while other settings, people, and experiences will maintain or extinguish that behavior. More importantly, however, it is not particular people or outside experiences that directly cause certain behaviors. Instead, they evoke certain emotions and thoughts from us that then produce our behaviors and this in turn serves to maintain or extinguish our behaviors. For example, if I find myself overeating at grandma’s house, I will find from careful reflection that this learned and habitual behavior is prompted by the delicious smell of home-cooked meals, which directly evokes feelings and thoughts of comfort. Thereupon, I eat three servings at dinner, which is maintained by mom’s response – one of satisfaction and pleasure.

What does all of this mean? It means that we can better understand not only the role of our perceptions (see Recognizing Beauty), but also the role of our environments (how it produces and maintains certain behaviors of ours) in reducing undesirable behaviors or increasing desired behaviors.

  1. Begin with just one behavior you want to increase, and one behavior you would like to decrease in your life.
  2. Monitor and observe what external events produce the behavior (antecedents) and what maintains or diminishes the likelihood of the behavior (consequences).
  3. More importantly, and perhaps more difficult, is understanding what these events indirectly produce (i.e., what thoughts and feelings come up as a result of both the antecedents and consequences?). Thoroughly understanding what pathways these interactions (events-thoughts-feelings) produce is the start of a long-lasting life change.