I woke to this New Year to an email that said “do you want to be happier in 2019?” and I realised that one of the major factors influencing our wellbeing is that happiness is just around the corner if only we had the drive/ mindfulness/ discipline to reach out and grab it – and that is a myth.
New Years is a funny time of year. For the majority of the world it is a demarcation between one year to the next and psychologically it carries a huge weight of responsibility to reflect usually on all the things we didn’t do and how we should resolve to ‘do better’ in the coming 12 months. Why it carries such significance is curious given that December 31st was technically just another Monday night and January 1st was an ordinary Tuesday. Yet for most of us it is a time to engage in self-flagellation and remorse. To purge ourselves of the sins of the past twelve months with a resolve to be bigger and brighter and ultimately more disciplined in the year to come. The reality is that by February of any new year ninety percent of people will have broken their resolutions and returned to old patterns, and that may be okay?
For me this raises two pertinent questions:
- Why are old habits so hard to break?
- Why do we want to change who we are?
Are New Year’s Resolutions Impossible and Do They Contribute to Our Wellbeing?
Most goals around ourselves are achievable though rarely easy. Research demonstrates that the most common resolutions are losing weight, to do more exercise, quitting smoking and the promise to save money. Nothing earth shattering or too difficult to achieve, especially for health care professionals, right? Wrong. Any of these resolutions will require us to renegotiate our entire lifestyle and that is incredibly difficult to achieve. Polivy and Herman (2002) studied self-change and found that Most of us review self-change as unrealistically easy to achieve in an unreasonably short period of time. Embarking on self-change induces feelings of control and optimism that supersede the lessons of prior experience Whether it is a resolve that has been building throughout the year or something that comes to you at 11.50pm New Year’s Ever after three bottles of champagne we are all capable of believing we can reinvent ourselves with ease in the year to come. So, change is much harder than we anticipate and the breath of a new year and all it’s possibilities can be intoxicatingly (in more ways than one) exciting.
If you truly want to work on changing something in 2019 what are the best ways to succeed?
- Start Small: if an increase in exercise is your goal than think small and specific. The easiest way to succeed is a specific achievable plan. If you want to run 10kms by the end of 2019 and you are in terrible shape than walking the dog Monday, Wednesday and Thursday for 45 minutes around the local park is a great start. Schedule time, a route and a plan. Committing to exercise with another person also increases success.
- Reward over Retribution: humans are not motivated by shame and guilt. Negative emotions are powerful drivers of thinking and rumination that do not result in outcomes or actions. Exercise or move because you want to feel healthy and strong, not because you feel fat. Reward yourself with movement because you are important and so is your health.
- Avoid the binary thinking of ‘All or Nothing’: when you want a lifestyle change rather than a fad in your life you want to create automaticity or a strong habit or routine that sustains over time. A change in lifestyle is going to take lots of effort and practice. If you are unable to stick to your goals for a few days or a week do not abandon the project and wait until 2020. Persevere. Lots of people say it takes 21 days to form a habit, there is no science to this figure. A simple task of showering before bed may take 21 days to become a habit. Most tasks are more difficult than that. A 2009 study found that is can take between 18 days and 254 days for something to become a ‘habit’ so hang in there.
- One Goal at a Time: if you have woken to 2019 with the goal of being fitter, doing research and falling in love chances are you are setting yourself up for failure. Choose one goal to work on based on a priority. When this is well established than move to the next goal.
Do You Need to Change?
Before you commit to your resolutions perhaps the first task is to ask ‘why do you want to change’? Most of us believe there will be some exceptionally attractive reward if only we can be thinner, smarter or fitter. Certainly, weight loss and a healthier lifestyle are important however beautiful looking people do not appear to be happier. If lots of people love you the way you are than work out what is the motivation? I decided to be fitter to keep up with my boys physically (I didn’t want to be the mum who never swam because she was ashamed) and because my job demands my mental health wellbeing and for me exercise is pivotal to that.
If you have decided to do research this year because you feel you ‘should’ it will be much harder to achieve. Focus on changing your world rather than THE world. The older I get the more I realise that life is cyclical. There are times to push and times to live. Times to drive yourself and times to simply nurture yourself and survive. What do you need in 2019? Recognising that may change from month to month dependent on life circumstances.
Reflecting on 2018
It is easy for all of us to remember or dwell on the terrible and cringe-worthy moments of 2018. For most of us there is many. Every year can feel like the hardest and most stressful to date. All memories are open to distortion over time (ask your siblings about a shared memory!) It is an evolutionary process that negative memories are remembered more accurately and stronger than positive events. The brain turns on and enhances memory processing and efficiency when there is a negative event to try and avoid a repeat in the future. Attention is focussed on the detail to enhance your survival. Conversely, events that are positive or neutral do not trigger the brain to focus on detail.
If I overshare 2018 has been very difficult for me. There have been times of profound sadness and loss, challenges personally and professionally. If I were to list and dwell on all of these events and emotions it would lead me to believe that 2018 was a big fat failure…. right? Maybe not?
This morning as I did a long walk by the ocean, I forced myself to think of all the wonderful moments of 2018. And there were many. The problem is that negative emotions stick and wonderful moments need an active recall.
While life was at times frightening and sad in 2018 it was also a time of extension and rediscovery. My life has become a blank canvas in which I get to paint in whatever colours I choose. Scary but exciting.
I failed to finish my PhD however I did do several things that I felt proud of professionally. I also feel a hell of a lot wiser and more established in myself. I took nine weeks long service leave to write my PhD and I did write, I just did not come close to finishing. During this time, I also got to be at home fulltime with my boys for the first time since they were little which was the most precious and single greatest thing that happened all year.
I’m a little heavier on the scales (a fate worse than death for most women). I am also stronger, fitter and healthier and have eaten more popcorn than a small country and savoured the odd choc-top ice cream at the movies. Not the world’s greatest disaster.
The clinical challenges at work have reminded me of how important and passionately I feel about my work and that I am more resilient than I sometimes give myself credit for.
I have come to appreciate that things hurt because they are important, and having things of importance in your life is meaningful. There is a line in the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias” that has always resonated with me, “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special”. Pain is often associated with something special.
Happiness in 2019
Rather than plan all the things you feel you ‘should’ do in 2019 perhaps it would be more helpful to ask what would you like to do in 2019? What will make you feel more like a ‘whole’ person.
My dance teacher said recently in a class “if you want to go somewhere you need to look in that direction”…..Hardly profound and yet it was a real ‘aha’ moment for me. So often all of us are trying to get somewhere new, achieve something different while we keep our eyes and our thoughts firmly locked in the past. Ruminations and despair, guilt and recriminations are poor motivators for change. Self-compassion, humility and humour while surrounded by those we love are far more likely to be successful.
When I reflect on 2018, I am choosing to do so with profound gratitude. For amongst the sadness and fear and failure I have had moments of great love, tenderness and fun with people who are important and care for me. I also have the powerful gift of choice. A meaningful life is never a path of ease. Nor should it be. If we love or strive for improvement than life will be full of challenge and struggle and also joy. I leave you with the final two lines of the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) made famous by Nelson Mandela. My blessing for you all in 2019 is that you feel the connection of this incredible online community, that you value yourselves, that you are loved and know what you do is important.
William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)
“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
1. Polivy, J. and C.P. Herman, The False-Hope Syndrome: Unfulfilled Expectations of Self-Change. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2000. 9(4): p. 128-131.
2. Lally, P., et al., How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 2010. 40(6): p. 998-1009.
3. Kensinger, E.A., Negative Emotion Enhances Memory Accuracy:Behavioral and Neuroimaging Evidence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2007. 16(4): p. 213-218.