TTo say that 2020 was not the best year is an understatement. For many of us, it felt like a gigantic global fire in a dumpster. Not surprisingly, the stress of living through a pandemic has had a terrible impact on our collective mental health. with skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety. Many of us feel like we can’t say goodbye to last year quickly enough.
And that means we are entering 2021 with high expectations. With the promise of a vaccine and the chance to return to normalcy, the start of this year has given us something that we have long lacked: hope. Starting over after the year we just had feels more exciting than usual. It is a completely new chapter in our lives, in which many positive changes are possible.
Research shows that this collective New Year’s optimism provides a powerful opportunity to change our behavior for the better. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Katy Milkman and others have shown that people are more motivated to tackle new goals on shared time breaks than at random times of the year; something she calls the “fresh start effect”. Whether it’s a birthday, the first day of school, or even a Monday morning, fresh start moments give us a motivational boost by focus our attention on the big picture and what we really want out of life. They make us feel less burdened by past mistakes, like we’ve been given a blank page. But if we don’t approach our goals wisely, resolutions can do more harm than good.
If you are like most Brits, you are probably planning personal improvement this month. For many, the New Year feels like a great time to review our bodies, finances, routines, and relationships. We focus our attention on all the ways that our past circumstances and behaviors suck, and we assume that the best way to complete that great reformation of life is with tough and serious love. We channeled our rough internal drill sergeants. We try to mortify ourselves and become better habits. We tell ourselves that we are fat, lazy, out of shape and weak; that our procrastination is holding us back, and it’s all our fault. That negative self-talk doesn’t feel great, but we assume that embarrassing ourselves is the only way to successfully motivate positive change.
But that approach is surprisingly ineffective, especially if your goal is to feel happier in the new year. First, our minds have bad intuitions about what we can do to improve our mood. Research shows that we make happiness mistakes all the time: we complain too much thinking we are venting, but we do it at the cost of noticing the good things in life. U.S avoid social situations, thinking that time alone is the cure for our sadness, but research shows that we would be happier if we connect with a friend. We also assume that happiness involves changing our circumstances: losing weight, getting buffers, and making more money. But as someone who teaches a complete course on the science of happiness, I know the research shows most of these popular January targets don’t improve our happiness as much as we suppose.
That’s why I advise my students to take a more evidence-based approach to choosing resolutions, inspired by scientific studies about what makes us feel good. For example, instead of trying to change your body shape this month, focus on changing the way you think. Try counting your blessings before falling asleep. It sounds corny, but research shows that simply writing down three to five things you are thankful for each day can significantly improve your well-being in as little as two weeks. Another positive mindset shift involves being more present. Research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert and his colleagues It shows that no matter what we are doing, we are generally happiest when we pay attention. So why not commit to increasing your presence with a few minutes of meditation each morning? Finally, consider changing from a selfish yo-yo-yo mindset to one that is a little more focused on others. Study after study shows that people are happiest when they help people in need.
Then there is the question of how we are going to achieve our purposes; science suggests that tough love is not the most effective way. Research by University of Texas at Austin psychologist Kristen Neff has shown that it is easier to change for the better if we take the opposite approach, treating ourselves with kindness and recognize that suffering and frailty are only part of being human. When that drill sergeant wants to speak, switch to a different interior monologue. Talk to yourself as a loving parent or coach trying to calm rather than scold. Remember that being human means not being perfect all the time and giving yourself compassionate touches: Neff suggests stroking your hand as you would to calm a friend.. While this may seem self-indulgent and hippy-dippy, science shows that it is an effective way to achieve our goals. Neff and others have found that people who are self-pitying eat better, exercise more, and are happier with their bodies. They also procrastinate less and bounce back with more stamina after failures..
By recognizing the ways our minds lead us astray, we can be sure not to waste the powerful New Year’s Eve effect. Doing so requires overcoming the overwhelming cultural urge to seek total change, as well as extending a little grace. And that’s why I committed to a different resolution this year: Instead of hitting the gym or diet books, I committed myself to a little more self-pity. I suggest you do it too.
• Podcast of Dr. Santos, The laboratory of happiness, has more tips for forming better resolutions this month.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism