As a glass-half-full kind of gal, I’m of the opinion that 2018 wasn’t all bad. It did gift us inspirational moth memes and cauliflower tots in bulk, after all. But admittedly, this year had its share of challenges—like political scandals and natural disasters—and it’s pretty clear we could all use a fresh start.
So let’s begin 2019 by revolutionizing resolution-setting. Instead of, say, vowing to quit sugar or pay down debt (which are definitely important but sound quite dreary, IMO), why don’t we all just set the intention to be happier in the New Year?
I know, this nebulous advice goes against all the conventional goal-creating wisdom of making resolutions that are specific, measurable, blah blah. But that’s the whole point, says happiness coach and Arrive at Happy founder Tia Graham. (Yes, that’s a real job—Graham is wrapping up her certification at the Happiness Studies Academy, created by former Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD. And Graham already has a busy slate of corporate and private coaching clients in Los Angeles, plus a Malibu retreat on deck for March.)
“From what I’ve studied, a lot of people set their New Year’s resolutions to attain something, whether that be weight loss, a promotion, a bigger bank account, or a relationship,” she says. These goals sound fine, in theory, but we’re largely falling short of them. According to a 2002 study from the University of Scranton, more than half of us completely abandon our resolutions within six months.
If we focus on simply cultivating happiness and positivity in our lives, we’ll feel more motivated and inspired, and success in other realms will naturally follow.
Instead, Graham argues, if we focus on simply cultivating happiness and positivity in our lives, we’ll feel more motivated and inspired, and success in all of those other realms will naturally follow. And no, her definition of “happiness” doesn’t mean that you’re never stressed, sad, or frustrated, because that’s impossible. Instead, she says, happiness means you have a strong “psychological immune system.” As she explains it: “When you do have painful emotions, you’re more equipped to deal with them. It’s more about choosing to not live in those emotions for long periods of time.” (To be clear, we’re not talking about mental health conditions like clinical depression here, which are obviously not a choice.)
So how to translate all of this into real life? I asked Graham to share some science-backed advice on how to approach 2019 in a way that will truly will boost happiness—and how to course correct if you end up veering off track. You can call her suggestions “resolutions” if you want, but if that word stresses you out, you can also think of them as guidelines for a resilient year—no matter what comes your way.
Read on to learn how to be happy in 2019, straight from an expert.
Spend more time with your favorite people
“A lot of people say friends and family are the most important thing in their life, but their actions are incongruent with their words,” says Graham. This rings especially true for me—I like to think my relationships come first, but I usually end up squeezing in my social time around my work, my workouts, and my life admin.
However, Graham argues that scheduling in quality time with loved ones should be at the absolute top of your New Year’s resolution list. “The number-one predictor of happiness is spending time with people you care about and who care about you,” she says. Indeed, a recent study of 1,200 German participants found that people who set goals involving other people were happier with their lives a year later than those who focused on more individual pursuits, like quitting smoking or getting a promotion.
If you need inspiration, take a cue from people in Norway and Denmark. “They finish work around 4 to 5 p.m., and they do community activities or have dinner together almost 7 nights a week,” Graham points out. (Of course, your boss would probably raise an eyebrow if you tried to peace out at 4 every afternoon. And as an introvert, I shudder at the thought of going out every single night.) But it can be as simple as scheduling a phone-free Sunday breakfast with your bestie each week or joining a run club—anything that will keep socializing consistent on your calendar.
Define what brings you meaning and do more of it
If the phrase “find your purpose” makes you break out in hives, Graham wants you to take a deep breath and shift your perspective. “A lot of people think living with purpose is this giant, lifelong question,” she says. “What the science of happiness teaches is you can find this in your daily and weekly life, and by doing that you can increase your positive emotions.”
“A lot of people think living with purpose is this giant, lifelong question. But the science of happiness teaches that you can find this in your daily and weekly life, which can increase your positive emotions.” —Tia Graham, happiness coach
In 2009, researchers confirmed the importance of striving for purpose. They found that college students who focused on meaningful activities for 10 days (e.g. practicing gratitude, being kind to others) had a more sustained sense of happiness than those who added pleasurable activities to their schedule (e.g. sleeping in, eating sweets).
The key, she says, is to think about the things you do that feel especially meaningful, or even spiritual, and make them part of your routine. “It could be doing charity work, FaceTiming with your parents, going to church, or being out connected with Mother Nature,” Graham says. “As little as an hour can fill up your bucket, so to speak, for that whole week.” No matter how busy you are, chances are you’ve got one hour a week to spare—so block it out on your iCal as a recurring appointment for service or spiritual connection, and watch what happens.
Move and eat well—but be gentle with yourself
Resolving to work out more and eat healthier are actually great choices, as far as happiness science is concerned—exercise releases all sorts of feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, and our gut health also plays a big role in our mental health. But we often approach diet and movement from a strict place, says Graham, which can be distressing. Instead, she suggests keeping it simple. “The way to be happier is to adhere as much as possible to our nature,” she explains. “So as opposed to saying ‘I’m gonna lose 20 pounds,’ create a healthy habit that says ‘My body is supposed to move, this is what nature intended, and three mornings a week, I’m going to go for a walk.'”
On the food tip, Graham recommends bypassing strict diets and simply eating closer to nature—more fruits and vegetables, less processed foods. “A diet rich in natural foods will contribute to your level of happiness and wellbeing,” she says, pointing to the Blue Zones—places on earth where people live significantly longer, happier lives, while eating mostly whole, plant-based foods—as proof.
Happiness science also teaches that the mind and body are inseparable, so Graham stresses the importance of letting yourself off the hook if your fitness-related lifestyle shifts take a back seat to reacting to any negative emotions—like, if you have a crazy week at work and eat boxed mac and cheese for three nights in a row. “What we can all do is be gentle on ourselves, give ourselves permission to be human, and know that when there are painful emotions like anxiety or anger, they will pass,” she says. “Whether you journal about them or talk to a friend, you can learn from these emotions, but don’t judge yourself. The mind piece is equally as important.”
Celebrate your wins (and be mindful of your losses)
Researchers have found that humans are wired to have a negativity bias—we tend to dwell more on our doom-and-gloom thoughts than positive ones. That’s why Graham says it’s super important to step back and savor our moments of happiness when they occur.
“Let’s say your boss congratulates you on a project you did,” Graham explains. “Most people say thanks and get right back to work. But why not sit in your chair for a second and feel all of those positive emotions, and maybe even tell a few of your best friends about it as well? A lot of times, we’re moving so fast that we’re missing the positive moments.” This was a game-changer for me—when someone compliments me, I forget about it almost instantly, but negative comments sometimes stick with me for years. Letting good feedback truly soak in helps to give those happy moments more real estate in our minds.
When someone compliments me, I forget about it almost instantly, but negative comments sometimes stick with me for years. Letting good feedback truly soak in helps to give those happy moments more real estate in our minds.
But make no mistake—this doesn’t mean we should shove our negative emotions into the recesses of our psyches. The difference is mindfully confronting them as opposed to ruminating, says Graham. “Positive psychology has shown you will work through painful emotions quicker if you journal or ask a friend to talk about it.” Meditation is also a great tool for this, she adds. “Just sit for 10 minutes at the end of the day and think about what made you upset, what was happening before, during, and after, and what you learned from it,” she says. “The important thing is not to be angry with yourself for having those emotions.”
Learn something new
Back in 2009, researchers found that adults who were picking up a new skill reported increased happiness and satisfaction throughout their day. (Although they weren’t always happy in the thick of the process—being a beginner at anything can feel pretty awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you’re a perfectionist.) With this in mind, Graham says exploring something that interests you could be key to having a happy 2019.
“It could be learning to cook or taking a class related to your job,” she says. “But when you’re learning and growing, you’re going to have a higher level of happiness than staying static intellectually.” She points out that for the first few decades of our lives, we’re constantly studying and stretching our brains, but that often levels off once we graduate and get a job. “Our desire for new information hasn’t changed much from our baby and toddler days,” she says. “We get a lot of pleasurable emotions from learning.”
And it doesn’t have to involve signing up for a two-year graduate program, either. “I always tell people to turn off the TV one night a week to watch TED talks and see how you feel the next day,” she says. Bonus: You’ll become a way more interesting dinner-party guest, too.
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