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The agony and the ecstasy

May 20, 2012

At the Boston Museum, Joyce is unable to take her mind off er father's loss of memory. — Photo by author

It’s the brain, stupid! Like a little minx, it drives us to extremes — supreme happiness or downright depression. From cradle to grave, we are held hostage to the whims of our brain. Life is either a journey of agony or ecstasy. It can be both too — aren’t we all teeny bi-polar? Ecstasy elevates a poet, artist, scientist or a writer to create the best he or she is gifted with; Agony drags a person down, pounding him with mental dysfunction, derangement, disorientation and in some cases, even dementia. The last is incurable.

So, should we all be worried? Absolutely. Can we do something to stop the brain from dictating to us? Absolutely. Why should one spend one’s days on earth, moping, hoping, coping or hyping the good or bad that happens? No simple answers exist, yet the world of science plods on with possibilities that hang out there for some bright spark to pluck.

One such spark to hit the bookshelves and the TV circuit is Charles Duhigg. His book The Power of Habit — Why we do what we do in life and business shines a light on how we think and act. Habits aren’t destiny, he declares. By understanding human nature and changing habits, we can transform our lives, businesses, work and relationships, he insists.

As an investigative business reporter for the New York Times armed with an MBA from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree from Yale, Duhigg has interviewed over 300 scientists and executives to authoritatively conclude that habits are “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.” This automatic behaviour can be changed into “keystone habits” that can mean the difference between failure and success, life and death, he says.

The key then is ‘keystone habits’ — the central support on which our destiny depends.

Listening to a top CEO whose company sells cosmetics the world over by tapping into consumers' habits. — Photo by author

His book contains success stories of an untested CEO whose first order of business was “attacking a single pattern among his employees — how they approach work safety.” Soon the firm, Alcoa, became the top performer amongst Dow Jones companies.

Similarly, shifting the way Procter & Gamble advertised its product ‘Febreeze’ (fabric refresher and odour remover) earned the company a billion dollars in sales in the first year of its launch. The marketing specialists studied the way consumers had the habit of making their beds. Using that data, they devised their advertising.

Apart from Fortune 500 companies and their achievements based on collecting information on consumer habits, Duhigg discovered how the right habits helped propel Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King towards success.

Okay, how does it work? Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy, warns the author, but with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. He outlines a framework comprising four components: Identify your routine; Experiment with rewards; Isolate the cue and Have a plan. The writer gives his own example of how he would reach for a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon, until he decided to kick the habit by following the above four steps of self-discipline and analysis. “Since starting work on this book, I've lost about 30 pounds, I run every other morning (I’m training for the NY Marathon later this year), and I’m much more productive. And the reason why is because I’ve learned to diagnose my habits and how to change them.”

The ex cookie monster’s takeaway from researching his book is the power and influence companies like the giant retail store Target exercise on their consumers by merely analysing their shopping habits. They collect data on every shopper and with that information try to diagnose each consumer’s unique, individual habits. “Oftentimes, they know what is going on in someone’s life better than that person’s parents” quips Duhigg.

Now that the ‘ecstasy’ part has been taken care of, let’s move to the ‘agony’ side. And herein lies the rub: there is no cure for mental disease like dementia. Confronted with scary statistics and new discoveries, America, which is the ‘medicine chest’ of the world, has failed to defeat the diseases of the mind. Children, adults, seniors — males and females — are daily diagnosed with diseases that defy a cure. About 4.5 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s today. By 2050, the number could reach 16 million. No one knows why people lose their minds.

Recently there was a gut-wrenching article in the New York Times titled ‘The Vanishing Mind: A Wife's Heartache.’ These following lines are like a death-knell for people as young as in their 40s and 50s. Called ‘Frontotemporal Dementia’ it is different from Alzheimer’s. “But it is perhaps even more devastating, because it strikes younger people, progresses faster and, unlike Alzheimer’s, does not attack memory at first but begins with silence, apathy or bizarre personality changes.” The disease afflicts 50,000 to 60,000 Americans. Michael French was diagnosed with this disease in 2007 when his wife Ruth took him to a neurologist because of his odd behaviour. “Once a good cook, he burned every pot in the house. He became withdrawn and silent, and no longer spoke to his wife over dinner. That same failure to communicate got him fired from his job at a consulting firm.”

French was a handsome, tall man with an engineering background. He lectured at conventions, belonged to a book club and ran marathons. Now, at age 71, “he can no longer speak, read, write or walk.” Here’s another alarming fact: his wife thinks that he had started exhibiting these signs long before he was diagnosed; a decade earlier, when he was in his 50s. Unable to take care of her husband, Ruth French, 66, has had him admitted to a nursing home in Manhattan. But she’s there with him every day. By sheer force of habit, they recite the E.E. Cummings poem they both once loved:

Where do you carry my heart? I carry your heart with me I am never without it (anywhere I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling) I fear no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet) I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)