Your Subtractive Goals May Be Holding You Back—Here’s How To Set Additive Ones, According to Joy Experts

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Scan the most popular New Year’s resolutions around diet, exercise, and finances, and it’s easy to see why they can be such downers: They’re often (quite literally) subtractive in nature, with folks aiming to cut down on spending, avoid certain foods, or even minimize their own size. While some of these goals may be tied to legitimate, health-supportive intentions, the way they’re framed can doom them from the jump, according to positive psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, MD.

Uncovering ways to reframe these life goals—whether they’re New Year’s resolutions or really any-time-of-year resolutions—and reorient them toward positivity and success is the topic of the latest episode of The Well+Good Podcast. In it, Dr. Boardman, and joy expert Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things To Create Extraordinary Happiness, break down how to start by removing the guilt-laden framework that resolutions so often entail.

Listen to the full episode here:

Experts In This Article

“There’s so much pressure within the whole industrial complex around self-improvement that it tends to leave us feeling worse,” says Dr. Boardman, who suggests thinking about exactly what story you’re telling yourself when it comes to a New Year’s resolution. In her experience, that story is one that too often paints the storyteller in a negative light.

“We constantly focus on what’s wrong. For example, if somebody were to ask a person that question, it’s easy for them to come up with 20 things [they need to improve], and fixate on that,” she says in the episode. “But less available to us is, ‘What are our strengths?’ and ‘What are we good at?’ And from there, 'How can we put our strengths to good use in order to navigate toward a goal?'” At its essence, that mindset shift is about doing more of the good, positive things, rather than less of the bad.

Why taking an additive approach to goals is often so effective

Simply put, positivity doesn’t typically just happen in the absence of negativity. “We tend to think of joy as a spontaneous thing or as an extra thing we do after we’ve done everything else we have to do,” says Lee. But as you might suspect, this approach could have you waiting some time (perhaps, forever?) before all your responsibilities are checked off, and joy arrives.

“When we plan for joy, when we schedule joy, and when we think about it in advance, it allows us to make sure that those good things actually happen.” —Ingrid Fetell Lee, joy expert

Instead, Lee proposes that we need to actively add joy into our lives for it to happen. “When we plan for joy, when we schedule joy, and when we think about it in advance, it allows us to make sure that those good things actually happen,” she says.

From a psychological standpoint, it’s also easier to stick by positive resolutions that include some element of joy because they're intrinsically motivating. (Think about it this way: It’s tougher to find the motivation to not do or avoid something deemed negative than it is to actively do something positive.) And without being so “deficit-focused” (i.e., framing a goal around the ways you fall short), “you can make a strengths-based or strengths-focused resolution,” says Dr. Boardman, “which is one that really dovetails with your values and what you care most deeply about.”

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How to set positive resolutions for the New Year (or any time of year)

The experts tackle positive goal-setting from two different directions: How to seek out the joy in resolutions that don’t seem inherently joyful, and how to do more of the things that do bring you joy.

With regard to the first, Lee suggests getting creative. “You can find the joy in things that you don’t naturally enjoy, but you have to do it from a place of exploration and curiosity, rather than from a place of, ‘I’m going to master this,’ or ‘I’m going to force myself to do this,’” she says. For example, if exercising is part of your New Year’s goal but you really don’t like doing it, try broadening your perspective to find some way of moving your body that you do enjoy, she suggests. “Or, maybe it’s having a brightly colored workout outfit visible in your closet, and you see that every morning, and get excited to wear it,” she says.

In terms of adding more of the things that do spark joy into your life, it’s important to focus first on identifying what those are. “One of the things about joy is that it's an incredibly visceral emotion,” says Lee. “So, look back and think about when you’ve found yourself laughing, when you’ve just caught yourself with a smile on your face, or when you’ve felt a feeling of lightness or freedom.” Admittedly, it might not have been anytime in the past year or two, given the collective and individual traumas of the pandemic; in that case, look back even further, Lee says. “When you start to gain this awareness of joy, you’ll begin to notice patterns and see the things that really have a timeless joyful quality, versus the things that are more fleeting.”

Beyond doing more of those joy-sparking activities, you can also set positive resolutions by involving more of the people who make you feel your best. “We know that prosocial acts and doing things with and for others, in general, helps us feel better,” says Dr. Boardman. “Research shows that the effort we put into our relationships is one of the most significant contributors to our well-being.”

In that realm, Dr. Boardman suggests being “deliberate about delight” by focusing on her three C’s: connection, contribution, and challenge. “Are you having a meaningful interaction with someone each day? Are you contributing to something beyond yourself? And are you challenging yourself in some way?” she suggests asking yourself. Going back to these questions whenever you’d like—whether it’s the first month of the year or the last—is one way to find more everyday uplifts, she says, “which really fill the reservoir of our own vitality.”

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