Accessibility links

By the end of today, 66,000,000 cups of tea will have been consumed in the UK. But have you ever thought about why we developed the habit of drinking tea? Over the course of several hundred years, tea became Britain’s national drink, and in fact is so integral to our routine that it is difficult to imagine British people without drinking tea. The story of tea in the UK society started in the seventeenth century with Catherine of Braganza who introduced tea to the English Royal court for the first time.

The fashion soon spread beyond these elite circles to the middle classes where wealthy men would join coffee shops to drink it. Tea at that time was a luxury good, and as women would not frequent coffee shops, they would instead drink it at home, hosting tea parties as a genteel social occasion. But tea became even more popular among working classes, when smugglers started to bring in more of it than was brought in legally. Tea also became a political good as it was very important for Britain’s global trade and British colonialism, and even it is said that it played an important role in the British Industrial Revolution. Today it is the symbol of ‘Britishness.’

But the habit of drinking tea, as much as it was influenced by historical facts, was also developed in a specific environment. Such an environment is the habitat where we live, work, play and interact with one another. We develop and shape our habits according to our personal beliefs, meanings, and functions, but also according to the beliefs, meanings and functions of our own habitats.

A habitat is defined in ecology as a space that is inhabited by particular living organisms. The habitat must provide all the essential needs to those organisms in order to survive. As humans, we are also living organisms which live and interact in particular habitats to satisfy our needs. However, as rational species our satisfaction of needs correspond to physical, social, cultural and emotional factors. Then, human habitats can be defined as the surrounding spaces where we live, work, play and interact with one another, which are formed by physical, social, cultural and emotional aspects.

We can say that drinking tea was developed in a British habitat, where the physical factor of cold weather made Catherine of Braganza, coming from her native Portugal, have a warm sweet drink that she knew since she was a child, and popularized it so much that on a winter’s day today who would give up a mug of tea! The social factors among the rich popularized drinking tea as a social occasion to gather and discuss the events of the day. For the working classes tea meant a break for long hours of work, and in the present days employees still allow tea breaks as part of their social routine at work. The cultural and emotional aspects are interrelated as tea reflects the British imperialism and progress, which British people are still very proud of.

Habits do say much about whom and how we are, but most importantly we are able to change and adapt to them. Britons acquired the habit of drinking tea perhaps because of the cold weather, or probably because of what tea means to us as a country. However, as habits are routines of behaviour, they are less visual to our rational deliberation and thus some Britons might not even think about why they are the highest tea consumers per capita in the world, as we consider drinking tea as automatic.

But is drinking tea a good or a bad habit for us? A bad habit is described as a negative behaviour pattern, so drinking tea would be a bad habit depending on the negative effects it has on us and in our environment and how often the habit is repeated. For example, much of the dental problems that exist in the UK are related to the overconsumption of tea. As such, classifying good or bad habits will depend on the negative or positive effects it has on us and our habitats. To transform bad habits to good ones will depend on influencing the environments we inhabit through recognizing the aspects of our habitats.

How the physical factors of our habitats can affect us and help us to create new habits, are well studied by psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists, among others. Their research is based on how different surroundings such as thermal, acoustic, luminous and spatial environments have an effect on us. Scientists have demonstrated how the lack of light can affect our mood, our emotions and even our wellbeing; or how the presence of some noises can affect our performance at work. Further research conducted by Professor Fred Gage from the Salk institute in San Diego, has also proved how the physical factors, especially in the built environment, can affect and shape our behaviours.

On the contrary to scientists, we are not that aware of the effects of the physical factors that influence us, and even less aware of the social, cultural and emotional aspects of our habitat. However as has been shown, the understanding of the aspects of the British habitat help us to comprehend why the habit of drinking tea has been maintained for centuries. Thus, transforming our habits will depend on understanding the habitat where they are developed, to make more conscious decisions about the way we behave, as behaviour change is not just about will power.  

As part of the RSA’s Social Brain Project a key component for behaviour change is looking at how we can develop new good habits. Thus, the challenge for us will be to discover how by being more aware of all the elements of our habitats we can be able to shape them to create new habits.

“If we want new habits, we should change our habitats.”


Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.