Green Burial

The Value of Old Habits

Before we get going let me be clear: I am talking about habits, not addictions.

In recent years, Americans have come to use the word “addiction” when they mean habit. For the record and in shorthand, an addiction is a compulsive need for a substance that causes physiological symptoms when withdrawn.

If you are still smoking tobacco, that's an addiction. If, like me, you eat oatmeal with fruit almost every morning of the year, that is a habit.

Habits are ingrained behaviors that might be hard to change but cause no ill physical effects when stopped.

These days, habits have a bad reputation particularly in reference to elders. Old people are often accused of being “stuck in their ways” and “out of step” because they refuse to change the routines they have kept for many years.

In fact, I've been called out on one of the habits I refuse to break, importing my coffee from New York City.

Undoubtedly, there is perfectly good coffee where I live now but 30 years ago, it took me nearly two years of experimenting with roasts and blends to find what I liked. My taste has not changed and it saves a whole lot time and effort now to just have it shipped every month or six weeks than to redo the process of finding another blend I like.

Am I stubborn about that? Yes. But who does it hurt, and that coffee blend I like gives me pleasure every morning.

In fact, habits are important to people of all ages. They make our lives easier than they would be without them:

”Habits afford us a welcome time out from the countless decisions we would otherwise constantly have to make...

“Only if a good chunk of our day transpires without our thinking about it, and as if on its own, are those energies set free that enable us to properly deal with all the other chunks that fall outside the norm.”

That quotation is from a lovely little book, What We Gain as We Grow Old, as yet unpublished in English by German philosopher, Wilhelm Schmid, and which I will tell you about when it becomes available.

For now, the section on habit as it relates to old people was a lovely moment of serendipity for me because I have recently been making notes about just that subject.

Habits, says the author, weave their way into the meaning of our lives without us having to work at it and those habits create an ongoing sense of comfort. So,

” we get older,” he continues, “we find ourselves wanting to preserve our lives just as they are and despite the problems this may cause...

“Much less than the young do we trust in the power of new habits to recreate the sense of familiarity and home provided by our old habits.”

However, in our culture these days, habits of long standing are frequently assumed to be bad ones, particularly among the old, and a large part of the consensus about habits is that we should knock ourselves out to break them.

It hasn't always been that way. Many of the ancients considered habits a matter of character:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” [Aristotle]
“Our character is not so much the product of race and heredity as of those circumstances by which nature forms our habits, by which we are nurtured and live." [Marcus Tullius Cicero]
“Character is long-standing habit.” [Plutarch or Socrates, depending on who is doing the quoting]

In more modern times, Adlai Stevenson believed “Laws are never as effective as habits” and Frank Crane preceded him by some years with a similar thought:

“Habits are safer than rules; you don't have to watch them. And you don't have to keep them, either. They keep you.”

Our habits have informed who we are, smoothed the passage through our days and by the time we arrive at old age, Wilhelm Schmid tells us, up to three-quarters of our lives has been handed over to habit.

That is a good thing. The greater potential for unbidden change that accompanies old age – in our health, our capabilities, our income, our social lives, our goals, purpose and much more, says Schmid,

”...the more uprooted we feel when we have to leave a familiar environment, lose an old acquaintance, or when a relationship we have grown used to ends.

“And should change be inevitable, then we need to make sure, if at all possible, to preserve at least some of our routines.”

It is a good thing to nurture our habits.


Your coffee habit got me thinking. A habit that I have had since childhood...a glass of OJ every morning made from frozen Minute Maid OJ concentrate. I just can't shake it. And can't make myself buy the carton OJ. Some habits like favorite OJ and coffee are too good to break.

I love that ... "A lovely moment of serendipity".

Your morning coffee? You still love New York, miss it and mourn it, but you can touch it a little every day with your daily cuppa. I see that as healthy. I have several like habits and am grateful for the constancy they give my life. They are like bridges from one place or another making my past part of my present.

What you say about my coffee reminding me of New York might be true although I've never had that thought in the morning.

But the biggest thing it does is relieve me of spending another year or two of my life trying to find a blend of coffee that I like as much as what I have now.

I did that a long time ago. Better now to spend what time I have left on something else and at the same time continue to enjoy the habit of a long-term pleasure.

Reading your blog is a habit, Ronni! Maybe sometimes an addiction as I still miss Tuesdays and Thursdays!! Thanks for all you do!

My favorite blog. Thanks. So much rings true to me and I love habits. The comfort of familiarity...yes!

When one day becomes a repetition of the day before I guess you could say my life has become a habit.

I eat the same breakfast every day and it is the same breakfast that you eat, Ronni. There is one difference; in the summer I eat cold Oatmeal squares instead of cooked Oatmeal.

I go to the computer first thing in the morning. I read in bed before going to sleep.

There must be many things I do during the day that have become a habit, both good and bad, but they are so ordinary that I can't recall them right now.

I agree with you completely on the value of (good) habits. They're a source of comfort and they free us to do interesting new things. The only one I'd like to break is my long-standing habit of liking good food and really good beer too much! I'm not fat, but that one bothers me and has been really tough to change.

Agree with Diane but understand the need for space between blogs.
I just had "a lovely moment of serendipity." Landed at your message today, Ronni, right after reading another regular blog I follow. That friend was writing about her breakfast on the go routine which included toast with peanut butter. She hadn't grown up liking peanut butter, but now it has become a precursor of great expectations as she and her husband venture out into nature for sketching and photography. That anticipation makes the peanut butter taste so much better.

Seems to me both habit and addiction rest in the eye of the beholder.....

Am I addicted to playing my music or is it a habit?

Change is refreshing, renewing, delightful.... Why get "set" in whatever you like in any moment? Turn the
page, play a different piece of music!

Conforming to the expectations of others was never my goal!

I think of my habitual activities as the skeleton of my life, upon which I can build the rest. When I already know what I'm going to eat for breakfast and lunch, when I'm going to do my writing, when I'm going to do my walking, then I have more energy to plan other, less routine activities. The comfort of the old, the excitement of the new--I try to strike a balance.

Benjamin Franklin said...
"Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones."
The only thing wrong with having a habit is that it often stops you from trying new things causing you to miss out on so much.

Habits are what keeps me moving along on those days when I'm sort of out of it.

I pick up Dancing Goat coffee to bring home whenever I'm in Portland. I guess it's sold elsewhere but not in Walla Walla. ;-)

If the definition of addiction is that when stopped, you have a physical effects, then I am addicted to avoiding good housekeeping chores.

I find myself, every time--which is not very often--when someone is coming for a visit, having to work very steadily and hard for a couple days and suffering the consequences of that compressed, stressed use of time.

I see the habit/addiction as being to avoidance of house cleaning as the culprit, not the days it takes to get my house in order. And of course, many things get piled/stuffed "for later when I am not rushed," yeah, right!

I eat oatmeal with walnuts, cinnamon, skim milk, and frozen blueberries almost every morning. The oatmeal is bought bulk at Whole Foods and is the thick cut style. I can put the oatmeal and blueberries on with just enough water to cover them, and by the time my coffee water (Sorry, I drink a french roast instant and prefer it for its mildness and less fuss in preparation (there goes my penchant for avoidance). has boiled, my oatmeal is ready and NOT GLUEY.

The oatmeal is not accompanied by powdery meal
and does not glom together as that which I was threatened with as a child.

I do not take my breakfast ingredients with me when I travel, so going without that for a few days only and coming home to it only makes the comfort of home more enjoyable.

I love my rut.

I love having routines.

I find great comfort in following my habits.

But there's pleasure in making myself do something new.

I'm doing the new plant based diet as described in the documentary Forks Over Knives. It's a radical change. But I'm able to handle it. Even though I'm getting older and set in my ways, I can learn new tricks.

Sometimes it is nice to try new things but it is my choice. I do not feel compelled to try new things though. Some new things work out and become new habits. But I like my routines because they generally work quite well for me.
Interesting post as always, Ronni.

Another oatmeal lover here. I put a small box of raisins, a spoonful of ground flax, skim milk, a half spoonful of almond butter a tiny bit of Quebec maple syrup, some broken walnuts.

And cook the whole thing. delicious!

My habitual breakfast.

Another habit: I look out the kitchen window for five or ten minutes every morning before breakfast, just examining the trees, birds, thinking about everything and feeling thankful.

Then I go outside, pick up the newspaper, go back in the kitchen and read about the big world outside our little oasis.

Everything I do is habitual. Has been since '92 when I retired. One of these days I'll try something new.

Unfortunately it has gotten so that you cannot depend upon household items staying the same. Just as you get used to one brand of whatever (food, cleaning supplies, toiletries) and automatically purchase it, they change it. And you know it's always because of money, not to improve the product, but to "get more margin." I applaud those brands that have stayed essentially the same throughout the years, but I don't take anything for granted anymore. I'm also angry when products I rely on are purchased by another company and keep the name, but completely change the product.

I hear you, Class of 65. They either change the product to something you don't like, or they get rid of it altogether. I'm constantly having to come up with replacement products.

This is such an emotional issue - comforting or confounding, occasionally at the same time.

Now I love my morning oatmeal like others here (and thank you for new combo suggestions! This time of year I make it savory - draining the oatmeal so it's like a grain - with tomatoes or vegs, chopped sweet onion, soy sauce, olive oil) and likely will never change that.

I also prefer shopping ease, more and more often over the internet, often with free shipping. However, I'm choosing the harder route and swearing at and off Amazon (yes, you know what I'm saying...). This will mean diddly to them - I feel better. Change is good.

And I'm in your circles, Class of 65 and Dkzody!

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