Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Habits and habitation

Book cover: Wendy Wood, Good Habits, Bad Habits

In October, it will be 10 years since I came back to Ireland, having spent the previous 24 years away, first in the UK and then in France. I hadn’t been back very long before I noticed some unexpected changes in my behaviour. A handful of these changes were for the better, others were definitely for the worse. I don’t need to go into detail, but among the less welcome changes were things to do with diet, exercise and healthcare.

Anyway, I was thinking recently about the regrettable changes when I spotted a piece on the New Yorker website about Wendy Wood’s book Good Habits, Bad Habits. The piece was from October 2019 and I’d noticed it before but this time, possibly because I was bored, I decided to read it. If her arguments are right, the changes (good and bad, but I was primarily interested in the bad) were predominantly questions of habit. It seems that some habits that I’d followed unthinkingly during my time in London and in France, had somehow become broken on my return home.

I’ve thought about why moving back to Ireland should have caused my habits to break, and I may well post about that question in the future. (I’ve already deleted two different sets of introductory paragraphs to this post, in which I had attempted to answer this puzzle.) For now, though, the urgent question is how I go about getting these habits back again or replacing them with different ones.

Wendy Wood’s book was just €1.50 on Apple Books, so I bought it and downloaded it onto my iPad. I haven’t read it all yet, but I was immediately struck by her discussion of voting in elections as habitual behaviour. That’s not how I had previously thought about voting. The fact is, I haven’t voted in an election or referendum since I came back in 2011. It’s only just struck me how very odd that is, how out of (my former) character. I first voted in the Irish general election of 1977 (when, like Sally Rooney’s Connell many years later, I marked my first preference for “the communist Declan Bree”: Normal People p. 46) and I voted in every election in which I was entitled to do so up to and including the UK general election of 2005. After that, I went to France, where I voted in local and European elections. I wasn’t entitled to vote in national elections, so I didn’t.

Though I respect their opinion, I’m not one of those people who believes that citizens have a duty to vote. If there really is no candidate that commands your approval, then you shouldn’t be compelled to vote for someone who doesn’t. I will always defend a person’s right to stay away from the polling station. But it’s not something I’d ever expected to find myself doing!

For the first 16 or 17 years of my electoral life, I never had any difficulty deciding who should get my vote. In 1988, I moved to the UK. As an Irish citizen, I was allowed to vote in all elections, including general elections, and I did just that. In 1994, John Smith died and was succeeded as leader of the Labour party by Tony Blair, who planned to make fundamental changes to the Party’s constitution and ethos. It became clear that both the Labour Party and I were moving away from socialism at the same time, though certainly not in the same direction. I no longer wished to vote for the party, as I had done as a matter of course — or habit? — for the previous 6½ years.

So what was I to do instead? No other party appealed to me. There was no obvious alternative. I didn’t for a moment consider abstaining. Instead, I asked myself what were the issues of immediate importance to me, and how could I best advance them. It was clear that there were two issues that I felt particularly strongly about: getting rid of first-past-the-post in elections and asserting my rejection of euroscepticism (which, in the wake of the Maastricht treaty was becoming virulant). Given these priorities, the party whose policies were closest to my own views was obviously the Liberal Democrat party. I’d always previously thought of them as hopelessly centrist and unprincipled; but a dispassionate examination of the issues suggested that they should have my support. And so I voted Lib-Dem, regularly and as a matter of habit, until I moved from the UK in early 2006.

In other words, when my habitual voting pattern no longer met my wishes, I made a conscious (and, I think, conscientious) decision to form a different habit. Voting, and adopting a political position, were important to me. So why did I take such a different approach when I found myself back in Ireland in the early 2010s?

I may write on another occasion about the changes to the Irish political scene that had taken place while I was away. For now, it’s enough to say that on my return I felt no responsibility for, or capacity to influence what was happening here. I didn’t feel that this country, in spite of its (in some respects) uncanny resemblance to the one I’d left so many years earlier, had much to do with me. I didn’t belong to it. And so, I didn’t put my name on the electoral register, or resume my formerly invariable habit of voting.

There have, however, been a few referenda on which I had strong views. I thought the EU Fiscal Treaty (which obliged Ireland to write into its constitution a requirement for balanced budgets) was an utterly misguided absurdity. But, instead of registering to vote against it, I merely tweeted my disagreement! When the constitution was amended to permit same-sex marriage, I was back in France for 6 months, so I wouldn’t have been able to vote anyway. I had no real doubt that the referendum would pass without my participation, and so it turned out.

Though I was back in the country by then, I didn’t vote on the 36th Amendment either, a fact I look back on with incredulity. I can’t remember, or imagine, how I justified that abstention to myself. No doubt, the fact that the marriage equality referendum had passed without any help from me made me more sanguine than I ought to have been, but the 36th Amendment wasn’t nearly as sure a bet. There are still plenty of Irish people for whom abortion is repugnant, partly for religious reasons. The aim of the 36th Amendment had been to reverse the effect of the 8th Amendment which, thirty-five years earlier, had added to the constitution a guarantee of the right to life of “the unborn”. I had campaigned and voted against the 8th Amendment in 1983, and considered its adoption a constitutional disaster.

I didn’t think it any less of a disaster thirty-five years later and, if I’d been acting in accordance with my principles, I shouldn’t have taken the slightest risk that the new referendum might be lost. I would at least have voted. Instead, I wrote a short story — my worst, by some margin. Unlike many of those who rejoiced that the amendment had passed, I didn’t think of it as a victory but rather as the overdue correction of a previous catastrophic mistake. Not a win but the barely adequate undoing of a loss. All the more reason why I should have played my part. Perhaps I had by now developed the habit of not voting.

Wendy Wood writes about habit formation as the creation of “a mental shortcut to repeat what we did in the past that worked for us and got us some reward”, and adds that rewards

don’t have to be intrinsic to the behavior — they can be extrinsic rewards too, so long as they are immediate. And it’s that immediacy that matters. There’s also a neural process that happens — when you are rewarded, your brain releases dopamine, which is a neurochemical, that actually binds together the context that you’re in and the response that you gave in order to get that reward. That’s one of the reasons why rewards are so important and so useful for forming habits.

I wondered if dopamine might work differently for someone with SDAM, and my Googling turned up an interesting article in Nature, which in turn led to my recent post, “The upside of SDAM”. I’d like to find out more about how dopamine affects people with SDAM but in the meantime I’m going to try to replace old habits, or at any rate to form them again.