Many of us are in the habit of making New Years resolutions. It feels good-there is a sense of optimism or even relief when thinking about how we are going to make our lives better. However, research suggests that these resolutions–even the most heartfelt ones–rarely lead to long-lasting changes in our behavior. Diets don’t stick and gym memberships go unused. By February the resolution may be totally forgotten, and we are back to baseline. Now, I am all for behavior change and know that humans are quite capable of it. I have seen people make changes that improved their quality of lives dramatically. People can grow and become wiser and healthier. But, in general, human beings are not very good at predicting what will make us happy. For instance, thinking about acquiring a large sum of money is a powerful daydream for a lot of people. (Powerful in that someone might spend a lot of time daydreaming about winning the lottery and spend a lot of money on lottery tickets). It can be fun to think about how money might solve our lives. And to be sure, money can dramatically improve one’s quality of living, especially if you had very little money to begin with. However, once basic needs are met, becoming rich doesn’t make you happier. A study of actual lottery winners supports this. In the study, lottery winners reported a sharp increase in happiness immediately after getting the big check. But then reported happiness went way down: winners become less happy than before they won. A year after winning the lottery, happiness levels were right back to where they started.*
So, resolutions are fine. Making promises to yourself to make positive change is a good thing. If you made a resolution, I hope you stick to it and reap the rewards. Daydreaming is not a bad thing to do either. I love to daydream about lavish vacations that I probably won’t take.** But also consider gratitude as a path towards increased happiness and well-being.
Practicing gratitude means noticing, appreciating, and enjoying the good things in life and the gifts we’ve received from others. It is the perfect antidote to the negativity bias we all have. This bias makes it easier to see and remember the bad stuff and forget and minimize the good stuff. Gratitude is linked to all kinds of good outcomes, like being happier and less depressed and anxious, and feeling more connected to others and more satisfied with life. Gratitude even makes us less materialistic and smarter when it comes to spending money. All good stuff.
The best part is that practicing gratitude is EASY. You don’t even have to get off the couch. And once you start, you want to keep going because it feels good. One simple practice is the gratitude journal. Each night before bed write down three good things about the day, and why they happened. Even if it was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, find three good things. Psychologist Martin Seligman developed and tested this gratitude practice (which he called Three Good Things) and found that if people wrote down three good things for a week they became happier and stayed happier for a long time.
So, yes, stop smoking! Yes, go to the gym! And yes, daydream about winning the lottery. But also pause and take in the good that is already right here. You deserve it. Happy New Year.
*Note to the lottery scientists: I am willing to be a case study to help disprove this research. Please contact me.
**Unless I get enrolled in the next lottery study.