by Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director
The new year is a time when people often “resolve” that they are going to do things differently next year. They are going to become their better selves. Eat less sugar. Get more exercise. Save more money. Volunteer. Go back to church. Spend more time with family.
We also hear a lot in the news that new year’s resolutions don’t work. The Statistic Brain Research Institute reports that only 8% of those who make new year’s resolutions achieve their goals. Only 8%! So while we know that people do achieve goals of self-improvement, clearly most are not making the necessary changes by resolving to do it at the beginning of the calendar year.
We celebrate the new year with a sense of expectation and hope. We say good-bye to the old and welcome the new. This sense of hope and anticipation invites us to imagine a different life for ourselves. We embrace the possibilities that the new year can bring us. So – despite evidence to the contrary – we still make resolutions because we want to be happier, more content and more satisfied.
So if making resolutions isn’t likely to get us to that desired place of happiness and satisfaction, what will? Science can provide the answer.
In his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb shares some evidence of what we can do to create an “upward spiral of happiness” in our lives.
1.Ask ourselves to name those things for which we are grateful. There is lots of evidence that gratitude boosts dopamine and serotonin levels which increase our sense of enjoyment and happiness. But the interesting part of this advice is that it doesn’t matter if we can’t think of anything to be grateful for – the sheer act of asking, of searching, affects the density of our prefrontal cortex and physically builds our emotional intelligence. With more emotional intelligence we have more ability to be grateful … and the spiral of happiness begins.
2. Name our negative emotions. There is a truism that says by “naming the elephant in the room” – e.g., ageism, racism, sexism – you diminish its power. Now there is physical evidence to suggest that by naming your negative feelings and emotions, you reduce their strength and impact in your brain. A study using MRI imaging found that consciously recognizing negative emotions positively impacted pre-frontal cortex activity. A boost to your pre-frontal cortex furthers the spiral of happiness.
3. Make a “good enough” decision. We all know the relief that comes when a decision is (finally) made. Decision-making is stressful because are searching for the perfect answer or worrying that we are making the wrong decision. Research suggests that when we let go of “perfect” and embrace a “good enough” decision, the dorsolateral prefrontal areas of the brain are activated. Making the decision, i.e., getting out of this stress-cycle, causes changes in our attention circuits and increases our dopamine levels … thus generating pleasure.
4. Give and receive hugs. There is evidence that when people feel left out or are mis-treated, they feel physical pain. The brain responds as if you have broken an arm or a leg. Touch – the physical act of touching someone – improves brain performance. Kolb notes that a hug, “especially a long one,” releases the hormone oxytocin and serotonin and that “5 hugs a day for 4 weeks” substantially increases one’s happiness.
To re-cap: You don’t need to make any new year’s resolutions!. Search for gratitude, name your emotions, make “good enough” decisions and give someone a hug on a regular basis. The spiral of happiness will be unleashed … and you’ll tackle those self-improvement goals from a position of strength. In The Upward Spiral, Kolb writes: “Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning. Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.”