Wisdom//

Putting the Happy in Happy New Year

How to set — and maintain — New Year’s resolutions that can improve your mental well-being.

NadinPanina/Getty Images
NadinPanina/Getty Images

Once we have turned the calendar to 2019, after the champagne has been drunk and the confetti cleared, many people turn to resolutions that will shed inches from their waistlines and add joy to their days. For those still searching for the perfect resolutions, the behavioral sciences have identified the most effective ways to enhance our psychological health and well-being in the year ahead. What follows are seven strategies from Positive Psychology, a field that knows a thing or two about putting the “Happy” in “Happy New Year.”

Of course, for many people the challenge isn’t so much about which goals they want to set for themselves, as much as it is how they are going to keep up with them. So at the end of this list you’ll find four research-based tips on how to maintain your resolutions if you should find yourself running low on motivation a few weeks in.

Seven Resolutions for a Happy New Year:

Practice gratitude. It’s easy to get bogged down with life’s inevitable hassles, so make an effort to direct attention to things that are still going well. On the way home from work, fill the time that could go toward ruminating over bad parts of your day with the things that went well. Study after study has shown gratitude to be one of the simplest yet most robust ways to increase psychological well-being.

Get outside and move around. Research confirms that a few minutes walking around in nature can boost both mood and energy levels. Exercise is key to our psychological health because it releases the brain’s “feel good” chemicals.

Get more happiness for your money. Studies show little connection between wealth and happiness, but there are two ways to get more bang for your happiness buck – buy experiences instead of things and spend your money on others. The enjoyment one gets from an experience like a vacation or concert will far outweigh and outlast the happiness from acquiring another material possession. Doing good things for other people strengthens our social connections, which is foundational to our well-being.

Sweet dreams. Get a full night’s sleep on a regular basis. Our brains are doing a lot of important work while we sleep, including strengthening neural circuits that strengthen mental acuity and help us regulate our moods when we are awake. Sleep deprivation severely impairs our ability to stay on task at work, and often is the prelude to an ill-tempered day.

Limit time on social media. Facebook and Instagram often exaggerate how much better off others are compared with how we might feel about ourselves at the moment. Many studies have shown that too much time spent on social media usually is associated with lower levels of self-esteem, optimism, and motivation while leaving people feeling — ironically enough — less socially connected to others.

Use your phone in the way phones were originally intended. The next time you are tempted to use your phone to scroll through social media, scroll through your list of contacts instead. Find someone to call or FaceTime. The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than any comments or likes you get on social media.

Reach out and connect with someone. Nothing is more important for our psychological health than high-quality friendships. Find an activity that allows you to get together with friends on a regular, ongoing basis. A weekly happy hour, poker night, or TV show ensures consistency and momentum in your social interactions. People with high-quality relationships are not only happier, they’re also healthier. They recover from illnesses more quickly, live longer, and enjoy more enriched lives.

And to actually make those New Year’s resolutions stick…

Identify an important reason why you are resolving to change something in your life (e.g. “This will improve my health,” or, “This will advance my career”). Research shows that reminding yourself of how your daily behaviors fit into big-picture goals will keep you motivated to stay on track.

Think about the potential barriers that might get in the way of implementing your goals (you might get lazy, tired, forget, or lured away by another temptation), and then identify contingency plans for how you will respond in those moments: “When I start getting distracted in the middle of a big work project, I’ll give myself a quick break and then remind myself how rewarding it will feel to be finished with it.” Better yet, select environments that are free from distractions altogether. If you know you’re always tempted to surf the web while completing work, take your laptop to a place where there’s no WiFi and leave your phone out of reach.

Set specific dates and times when you will incorporate the behavior — when you make a schedule for new behaviors you’d like to incorporate into your life they require less psychological strength to implement. When you get in the habit of running every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the behavior becomes much easier to initiate because it simply becomes part of your routine, like brushing your teeth or taking the dog on a walk.

Make your goals measurable, break them up into smaller sub-goals, and the reward yourself each time you hit a particular milestone. If your goal is to lose 50 pounds in the new year, treat yourself to a movie or other fun outing for each 5 pounds you lose. If you find your original goal was too ambitious, it’s OK to scale back. If you realize losing 50 is unrealistic, see what you can do to lose 15 or 20, and then build from there.

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