“If you look carefully you will see that there is one thing and only one thing that causes unhappiness. The name of that thing is attachment. What is an attachment? An emotional state of clinging caused by the belief that without some particular thing or some person you cannot be happy.” -Anthony de Mello
We all have our vices. Some are glaring, others are silent. Silent, but not invisible. Exposing negative habits is a treacherous affair because they are embedded in a protective web of narratives and emotional blind spots. Ask yourself, "What are you unwilling to live without right now?" and you are on your way to shining a little light on this tricky subject.
Ultimately, all habits are adaptive. From an early age we learn that certain behaviors produce certain results. If we kicked and screamed as toddlers, chances are we got noticed. But depending on the patience and discipline style of our guardians, these tantrums might have lasted hours or just a few minutes. It follows that a behavior that is reinforced tends to get repeated and a behavior that is punished tends to diminish, right? Wrong.
Punishment can be one hell of a seductive reward. Herein lies the explanation of why bad habits can be so pervasive. First, they feel good in the short term, even though they are destructive in the long term. Vice is, in essence, empty. It does not evolve to be more sustainable and more beautiful over time. It is a hungry dog that must be consistently fed. The more you feed it the hungrier it grows. If punishment becomes a reward, then inevitably, vice and reality become one and the same.
Second, the attention that one receives from others when they act out their destructive habits is particularly problematic, because it reinforces the pattern--even if it's negative attention. Addicts are looking for connection (with people, the world, themselves), but are confused about the healthy method of delivery. Even the drug addict who is put out on the street by his family will go find attention elsewhere, cursing his family all the while, while the family grows more and more cold.
So, what are you unwilling to live without? The necessities of human existence are typically excluded--air, water, food, etc.--but even those can get murky. Food addiction is rampant in our culture. Porn addiction. Alcohol. Power. Pick your poison. What all of these have in common is the unwillingness of the user to live, even temporarily, without them.
Consider the Greek and Roman Stoics, as well as monks of various religions and doctrines, and the clerics, prophets, and disciples of Christianity. They all share a similar code of ethics concerning worldly temptations. They did not deny the existence nor the appeal of such things. What they did instead was place priority on their ability to indulge in such areas to augment their happiness, not define it. Their contentment came over a lifetime of spiritual practice.
The easiest application of the virtue of contentment is to take the one thing or person that you are most fearful to lose and imagine a day without it/them. Then imagine a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. This may seem cruel and unusual, but when you are free to let something go, then you have truly loved. However, abdicating responsibility is not the same thing as letting go. Letting go actually creates more responsibility, not less. It takes far more effort to love with all of your heart than only the parts that work out well for you.
If you want an additional layer of challenge attempt to live for an entire week in the most difficult manner possible. Walk as much as possible to places. Sleep on the floor. Eat cheaply. Don't numb out to TV or news. Practice such a detox any time that you feel too comfortable with your surroundings. Let your friends and family know what you intend on doing and remember that you can do anything hard for a week. Let this be a time to observe the pervasiveness of your ingrained habitual thoughts and behaviors. We can only confidently change what we can actually see.