Effectively Getting a New Start

January 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jan/08/i-teach-a-course-on-happiness-at-yale-this-is-how-to-make-the-most-of-your-resolutions

Whether it’s a birthday, the first day of school or even a Monday morning, fresh start moments give us a boost of motivation by focusing our attention on the big picture and what we really want out of life. They make us feel less weighed down by past mistakes, as if we’ve been given a blank slate.  

Our minds have bad intuitions about what we can do to improve our mood. The research shows we make happiness mistakes all the time: we complain too much, thinking we’re letting off steam, but do so at the cost of noticing the good things in life. We avoid social situations, thinking alone time is the cure for our blues, but research shows we’d be happier if we connected with a friend. We also assume that happiness involves changing our circumstances: losing weight, getting buffer and earning more money.  

Counting your blessings before you fall asleep sounds cheesy, but it can boost your wellbeing in as little as two weeks

That’s why I advise my students to take a more evidence-based approach to picking resolutions, inspired by scientific studies of what does make us feel good. For example, instead of trying to change your body shape this month, focus on changing your mindset. Try counting your blessings before you fall asleep. It sounds cheesy, but research shows that the simple act of writing down three to five things you’re grateful for each day can significantly boost your wellbeing in as little as two weeks. Another positive mindset shift involves becoming more present. Research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert and colleagues shows that no matter what we’re doing, we’re usually happier when we’re paying attention. 

 Study after study shows that people are happier when they’re helping people in need.

Then there’s the question of how we go about achieving our resolutions; the science suggests tough love is not the most effective way. Research by University of Texas at Austin psychologist Kristen Neff has shown that it’s easier to change for the better if we take the opposite approach, treating ourselves kindly and recognising that suffering and frailty are just part of being human

Neff and others have found that people who are self-compassionate eat better, exercise more and are happier with their bodies. They also procrastinate less and bounce back more resiliently after failures.

By recognising the ways our minds lead us astray, we can be sure not to squander the powerful fresh start effect and extend ourselves a little grace.