Habit is a facility in performing physical or mental operations, gained
by the repetition of such acts. As examples of this in _physical_
operations may be mentioned the power of walking, which is acquired only
by a multitude of experiments; the power of speech, secured by a slow
process of repeated acts of imitation; and the power of writing, gained
in the same way. Success in every pursuit of life is attained by
oft-repeated attempts, which finally induce a habit.
As examples of the formation of _intellectual_ habits may be mentioned
the facility gained in acquiring knowledge by means of repeated efforts,
and the accuracy and speed with which the process of reasoning is
performed after long practice in this art.
As examples of _moral_ habits may be mentioned those which are formed by
the oft-repeated exercise of self-government, justice, veracity,
obedience, and industry. The will, as has been shown, gains a facility
in controlling specific volitions and in yielding obedience to the laws
of right action by constant use, as much as all the other mental powers.
The happiness of man in the present state of existence depends not so
much upon the circumstances in which he is placed, or the capacities
with which he is endowed, as upon the _formation of his habits_. A man
might have the organ of sight, and be surrounded with all the beauties
of nature, and yet, if he did not form the habit of judging of the form,
distance, and size of bodies, most of the pleasure and use from this
sense would be wanting. The world and all its beauties would be a mere
confused mass of colors.
If the habits of walking and of speech were not acquired, these
faculties and the circumstances for employing them would not furnish the
enjoyment they were designed to secure.
It is the formation of _intellectual_ habits by mental discipline and
study, also, which opens vast resources for enjoyment that otherwise
would be forever closed. And it is by practicing obedience to parents
that _moral_ habits of subordination are formed, which are indispensable
to our happiness as citizens, and as subjects of the divine government.
There is no enjoyment which can be pointed out which is not, to a
greater or less extent, dependent upon this principle.
The influence of habit in regard to the _law of sacrifice_ is especially
interesting. The experience of multitudes of our race shows that such
tastes and habits may be formed in obeying this law, that what was once
difficult and painful becomes easy and pleasant.
But this ability to secure enjoyment through habits of self-control and
self-denial, induced by long practice, so far as experience shows, could
never be secured by any other method.
That the highest kinds of happiness are to be purchased by more or less
_voluntary sacrifice_ and _suffering_ to procure good for others seems
to be a part of that nature of things which we at least may suppose has
existed from eternity. We can conceive of the eternal First Cause only
as we imagine a mind on the same pattern as our own in constitutional
capacities, but indefinitely enlarged in extent and action. Knowledge,
wisdom, power, justice, benevolence, and rectitude must be the same in
the Creator as in ourselves, at least so far as we can conceive; and, as
the practice of self-sacrifice and suffering for the good of others is
our highest conception of virtue, it is impossible to regard the Eternal
Mind as all-perfect without involving this idea.
The formation of the habits depends chiefly upon the leading desire or
governing purpose, because whatever the mind desires the most it will
_act_ the most to secure, and thus by repeated acts will form its
habits. The _character_ of every individual, therefore, as before
indicated, depends upon the mode of seeking happiness selected by the
will. Thus the ambitious man has selected the attainment of power and
admiration as his leading purpose, and whatever modes of enjoyment
interfere with this are sacrificed. The sensual man seeks his happiness
from the various gratifications of sense, and sacrifices other modes of
enjoyment that interfere with this. The man devoted to intellectual
pursuits, and to seeking reputation and influence through this medium,
sacrifices other modes of enjoyment to secure this gratification. The
man who has devoted his affections and the service of his life to God
and the good of his fellow-men sacrifices all other enjoyments to secure
that which results from the fulfillment of such obligations. Thus a
person is an ambitious man, a sensual man, a man of literary ambition,
or a man of piety and benevolence, according to the governing purpose or
leading desire of the mind.
There is one fact in regard to the choice of the leading object of
desire, or the governing purpose of life, which is very important.
Certain modes of enjoyment, in consequence of repetition, increase the
desire, but lessen the capacity of happiness from this source; while, in
regard to others, gratification increases the desire, and at the same
time increases the capacity for enjoyment.
The enjoyments through the senses are of the first kind. It will be
found, as a matter of universal experience, that where this has been
chosen as the main purpose of life, though the desire for such pleasures
is continually increased, yet, owing to the physical effects of
excessive indulgence, the capacity for enjoyment is decreased. Thus the
man who so degrades his nature as to make the pleasures of eating and
drinking the great pursuit of life, while his desires never abate, finds
his zest for such enjoyments continually decreasing, and a perpetual
need for new devices to stimulate appetite and awaken the dormant
capacities. The pleasures of sense always pall from repetition–grow
“stale, flat, and unprofitable,” though the deluded being who has
slavishly yielded to such appetites feels himself bound by chains of
habit, which, even when enjoyment ceases, seldom are broken.
The pleasures derived from the exercise of power, when its attainment
becomes the master passion, are also of this description. The statesman,
the politician, the conqueror, are all seeking for this, and desire
never abates while any thing of the kind remains to be attained. We do
not find that enjoyment increases in proportion as power is secured. On
the contrary, it seems to cloy in possession. Alexander, the conqueror
of the world, when he had gained _all_, wept that objects of desire were
extinct, and that possession could not satisfy.
But there are other sources of happiness, which, while sought, the
desire ever continues, and possession only increases the capacity for
enjoyment. Of this class is the susceptibility of happiness from _giving
and receiving affection_. Here, the more is given and received, the more
is the power of giving and receiving increased. We find that this
principle outlives every other, and even the decays of nature itself.
When tottering age on the borders of the grave is just ready to resign
its wasted tenement, often from its dissolving ashes the never-dying
spark of affection has burst forth with new and undiminished lustre.
This is that immortal fountain of happiness always increased by
imparting, never surcharged by receiving.
Another principle which increases both desire and capacity by exercise
is the power of enjoyment from being the _cause of happiness to others_.
Never was an instance known of regret for devotion to the happiness of
others. On the contrary, the more this holy and delightful principle is
in exercise, the more the desires are increased, and the more are the
susceptibilities for enjoyment from this source enlarged. While the
votaries of pleasure are wearing down with the exhaustion of abused
nature, and the votaries of ambition are sighing over its thorny wreath,
the benevolent spirit is exulting in the success of its plans of good,
and reaching forth to still purer and more accomplished bliss.
This principle is especially true in regard to the practice of
rectitude. The more the leading aim of the mind is devoted to _right
feeling and action_, or to obedience to all the laws of God, the more
both the desire and the capacity of enjoyment from this source are
But there is another fact in regard to habit which has an immense
bearing on the well-being of our race. When a habit of seeking happiness
in some one particular mode is once formed, the change of this habit
becomes difficult just in proportion to the degree of repetition which
has been practiced. A habit once formed, it is no longer an easy matter
to choose between the mode of securing happiness chosen and another
which the mind may be led to regard as much superior. Thus, in
gratifying the appetite, a man may feel that his happiness is
continually diminishing, and that, by sacrificing this passion, he may
secure much greater enjoyment from another source; yet the force of
habit is such that decisions of the will perpetually yield to its power.
Thus, also, if a man has found his chief enjoyment in that admiration
and applause of men so ardently desired, even after it has ceased to
charm, and seems like emptiness and vanity, still, when nobler objects
of pursuit are offered, the chains of habit bind him to his wonted path.
Though he looks and longs for the one that his conscience and his
intellect assure him is brightest and best, the conflict with bad habit
ends in fatal defeat and ruin. It is true that every habit can be
corrected and changed, but nothing requires greater firmness of purpose
and energy of will; for it is not _one_ resolution of mind that can
conquer habit: it must be a constant series of long-continued efforts.
The influence of habit in reference to _emotions_ deserves special
attention as having a direct influence upon character and happiness. All
pleasurable emotions of mind, being grateful, are indulged and
cherished, and are not weakened by repetition unless they become
excessive. If the pleasures of sense are indulged beyond a certain
extent, the bodily system is exhausted, and satiety is the consequence.
If the love of power and admiration is indulged to excess, so as to
become the leading purpose of life, they are found to be cloying. But
within certain limits all pleasurable emotions do not seem to lessen in
power by repetition.
But in regard to painful emotions the reverse is true. The mind
instinctively resists or flies from them, so that after a habit of
suppressing such emotions is formed, until the susceptibility
diminishes, and sometimes appears almost entirely destroyed. Thus a
person often exposed to danger ceases to be troubled by fear, because he
forms a habit of suppressing it. A person frequently in scenes of
distress and suffering learns to suppress the emotions of painful
sympathy. The surgeon is an example of the last case, where, by repeated
operations, he has learned to suppress emotions until they seldom recur.
A person inured to guilt gradually deadens the pangs of remorse, until
the conscience becomes “seared as with a hot iron.” Thus, also, with the
emotion of shame. After a person has been repeatedly exposed to
contempt, and feels that he is universally despised, he grows callous to
any such emotions.
The mode by which the mind succeeds in forming such a habit seems to be
by that implanted principle which makes ideas that are most in
consonance with the leading desire of the mind become vivid and
distinct, while those that are less interesting fade away. Now no person
desires to witness pain except from the hope of relieving it, unless it
be that, in anger, the mind is sometimes gratified with the infliction
of suffering. But, in ordinary cases, the sight of suffering is avoided
except where relief can be administered. In such cases, the desire of
administering relief becomes the leading one, so that the mind is turned
off from the view of the suffering to dwell on conceptions of modes of
relief. Thus the surgeon and physician gradually form such habits that
the sight of pain and suffering lead the mind to conception of modes of
relief, whereas a mind not thus interested dwells on the more painful
The mind, also, can form a habit of inattention to our own bodily
sufferings by becoming interested in other things, and thus painful
sensations go unnoticed. Some persons will go for years with a chronic
headache, and yet appear to enjoy nearly as much as those who never
suffer from such a cause. Again: those who violate conscience seem to
relieve themselves from suffering by forming a habit of dwelling on
other themes, and of turning the mind entirely from those obligations
which, when contemplated, would upbraid and pain them. Thus, too, the
sense of shame is lost. A habit is formed of leading the mind from
whatever pains it to dwell on more pleasurable contemplations.
The habits of life are all formed either from the desire to secure
happiness or to avoid pain, and the _fear of suffering_ is found to be a
much more powerful principle than the _desire of happiness_. The soul
flies from pain with all its energies, even when it will be inert at the
sight of promised joy. As an illustration of this, let a person be fully
convinced that the gift of two new senses would confer as great an
additional amount of enjoyment as is now secured by the eye and ear, and
the promise of this future good would not stimulate with half the energy
that would be caused by the threat of instant and entire blindness and
If, then, the mind is stimulated to form good habits and to avoid the
formation of evil ones most powerfully by painful emotions, when their
legitimate object is not effected they continually decrease in
vividness, and the designed benefit is lost. If a man is placed in
circumstances of danger, and fear leads to habits of caution and
carefulness, the object of exciting this emotion is accomplished, and
the diminution of it is attended with no evil. But if fear is
continually excited, and no such habits are formed, then the
susceptibility is lessened, while the good to be secured by it is lost.
So, also, with emotions of sympathy. If we witness pain and suffering,
and it induces habits of active devotion to the good of those who
suffer, the diminution of the susceptibility is a blessing and no evil.
But if we simply indulge emotions, and do not form the habits they were
intended to secure, the power of sympathy is weakened, and the designed
benefit is lost. Thus, again, with shame: if this painful emotion does
not lead us to form habits of honor and rectitude, it is continually
weakened by repetition, and the object for which it was bestowed is not
secured. And so with remorse: if this emotion is awakened without
leading to habits of benevolence and virtue, it constantly decays in
power, and the good it would have secured is forever lost.
It does not appear, however, that the power of emotion in the soul is
thus _destroyed_. Nothing is done but to form habits of inattention to
painful emotions by allowing the mind to be engrossed in other and more
pleasurable subjects. This appears from the fact that the most hardened
culprits, when brought to the hour of death, where all plans of future
good cease to charm the mental eye, are often overwhelmed with the most
vivid emotions of sorrow, shame, remorse, and fear. And often, in the
course of life, there are seasons when the soul returns from its pursuit
of deluding visions to commune with itself in its own secret chambers.
At such seasons, shame, remorse, and fear take up their abode in their
long-deserted dwelling, and ply their scorpion whips till they are
obeyed, and the course of honor and virtue is resumed, or till the
distracted spirit again flies abroad for comfort and relief.
There is a great diversity in human character, resulting from the
diverse proportions and combinations of those powers of mind which the
race have in common. At the same time, there is a variety in the scale
of being, or relative grade of each mind. While all are alike in the
common faculties of the human mind, some have every faculty on a much
larger scale than others, while some are of a very humble grade.
The principle of habit has very great influence in modifying and
changing these varieties. Thus, by forming habits of intellectual
exercise, a mind of naturally humble proportions can be elevated
considerably above one more highly endowed by natural constitution. So
the training of some particular intellectual faculty, which by nature is
deficient, can bring it up nearer to the level of other powers less
disciplined by exercise.
In like manner, the natural susceptibilities can be increased,
diminished, or modified by habit. Certain tastes, that had little power,
can be so cultivated as to overtop all others.
So of the moral nature: it can be so exercised that a habit will be
formed which will generate a strength and prominency that nature did not
The will itself is also subject to this same principle. A strong will,
that is trained to yield obedience to law in early life, acquires an
ease and facility in doing it which belongs ordinarily to weak minds,
and yet can retain all its vigor. And a mind that is trained to bring
subordinate volitions into strict and ready obedience to a generic
purpose, acquires an ease and facility in doing this which was not a
Thus it appears that by the principle of _habit_ every mind is furnished
with the power of elevating itself in the scale of being, and of
modifying and perfecting the proportions and combinations of its
And sometimes the result is that there is no mode of distinguishing
between the effects of habit and the natural organization.
One of the most important results of habit is its influence on _faith_
or _belief_. Those persons who practice methods of false reasoning, who
turn away from evidence and follow their feelings in forming opinions,
eventually lose the power of sure, confiding belief.
On the contrary, an honest, conscientious steadiness in seeking the
truth and in yielding to evidence secures the firmest and most reliable
convictions, and that peace of mind which alone results from believing