2016: Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions, Form Habits

why habits are more effective than resolutions

The approach of 2016 has me thinking about resolutions. If you’re a frequent reader, then you know that I am a big fan of Gretchen Rubin, an expert on happiness and lifestyle. In all three of her books and on her blog, she talks about how she keeps resolutions. One of her most recent tips is to choose a “one-word theme” to help clarify an overarching goal. In her blog post, Gretchen explains:

“I love resolutions, and as I wrote about in my book Happier at Home, for the last several years, I’ve identified one idea, summarized in just one word, as an overarching theme for the entire year.”

I took Gretchen’s advice in 2015 and decided to make “Control” my theme for the year. It was time to take control of my anxiety and depression and work hard in fighting both. Since last January, I have been seeing someone who has helped me develop tools to curb my anxiety and fine-tune my ways of thinking. Now, when those depressing thoughts occur, I can control them. I am happy to say that I have grown tremendously and I am a much stronger and happier person than I was this time last year.

After some research, and looking into Rubin’s new book, Better Than Before, I realized that I met my theme, or resolution, simply due to the fact that it wasn’t a resolution to begin with. Instead, I developed a habit.

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habits vs. resolutions

When I first discovered this, I asked: Aren’t habits and resolutions the same thing?

No, they’re not. Habits succeed where resolutions cannot. Studies show that in order to stick with your New Year’s Resolutions you need willpower. Truth be told, some resolutions aren’t “resolute” enough. They’re too abstract, and lack a concrete declaration and goal to work towards. Because of their ambiguity, your brain can’t tackle them.

According to research, in order to achieve your goals, you need to make your resolutions or goals “instinctual.” This aspect is what is missing from 90 percent of all New Year’s Resolutions,  and ultimately, why they most likely fail. For example, the resolution to “eat healthy” isn’t very personalized. You need to take that extrinsic goal and internalize it. So, instead of just saying you want to “eat healthier,” you can make the goal to start substituting fruit instead of chips at lunch. Or, if you want to focus on exercise, you can make the goal to go to the gym two-to-three times a week. You need to break down that broad resolution and see what habit, or habits, you can form to achieve your goals.

In 2015, my goal was to “go to therapy once every two weeks and learn how to take control of my life” with the overarching theme of Control. Having that concrete goal made it easy to tackle, and soon enough, it became a routine. I was accustomed to seeing someone once every two weeks, and I also formed a habit of curbing my anxious thoughts and using tools to combat my depression. I found that I would depend on those appointments, and sometimes, I would perform those tools and exercises I learned without even noticing I did them.

That’s the extraordinary thing I learned about forming habits: sometimes you don’t realize when you’ve formed them.  Habits are automated responses that are learned through repetition. These “moment by moment” actions are performed by a region in your brain called the “prefrontal cortex.” As soon as the behavior becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex goes into sleep mode.

Forming habits, and breaking habits, takes a lot of work. The idea can be daunting, but it is not impossible.

“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life,” Rubin writes in her book, Better Than Before. “We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.”

So this year take the challenge. Instead of making a New Year’s Resolution, try to form a habit instead. After we ring in the New Year, I will share my theme for 2016, and what habits I hope to make, and break, this year.

Gratitude: Why it’s Important and How to Cultivate it

Throughout the last year, I have been working hard at being happier. I have indulged in books that focus on improving one’s happiness: The Happiness Project and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin, and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and I’ve read countless articles, blogs, and studies on ways to boost my happiness and become an all-around positive person.

Since I was young, I have suffered from anxiety and depression. It is a crippling disease, and I have worked hard to fight it. Over a year ago, I started seeing someone who has helped me immensely. I have worked hard and have been using different tools to adjust my way of thinking and battle these illnesses. I’m happy to say that a lot of these practices have worked, and I am deeply interested in helping others boost their happiness and battle their own demons.

Lately, I have been working on one particular quality that is difficult for most: Gratitude. It’s the holiday season, the time of year when you reflect on what you are grateful for and express your gratitude to your loved ones, and most importantly, yourself. Keeping and cultivating gratitude is essential to your happiness.  Being grateful helps block out those ugly, negative traits including envy, resentment, and regret. People who are grateful are more optimistic, connected to other people, and have stronger bonds with their friends, family, and loved ones.

Speaking of loved ones, studies have also found that couples who express gratitude are more positive towards each other and more comfortable about expressing concerns about their relationship.

thankful

What does gratitude mean?

The word “gratitude” comes from the Latin term, “gratia,” which also means grace, graciousness, and gratefulness. According to multiple studies, having gratitude promotes better sleep, increases energy, reduces troublesome thoughts, increases generosity and compassion, and reduces those feelings of loneliness and isolation. Studies also find that people who express gratitude regularly have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and are more forgiving and outgoing individuals.

Being grateful produces positive emotions and fine-tunes the ability to relish good experiences. Although all of these qualities sound wonderful and easy to develop, they’re not. Feeling gratitude can be challenging sometimes. We often focus on aspects of our lives that need improvement or fixing rather than appreciating what we already have. Gratitude takes a lot of work and practice.

Robert Emmons,  a scientific expert on gratitude, conducted a study where he asked participants to write a few sentences each week focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for, the second group wrote about things that irritated them, and the third wrote about events that affected them without clarifying if they were positive or negative. The study, naturally, found that those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic about their lives, exercised more, and were overall healthier people than the others.

I would find that I focused too much on the negative and forgot about the positive aspects in my life. As I mentioned, I have been working hard to change my thinking, which, studies have proven, drive our emotions and actions. Instead of saying “I could”, or “I should,” I have been saying “I would like to”, or “It would be easier if.” Those actions have helped, but there were times when I looked past those tools and started comparing, or thinking about how I should be. That had to change.

We have plenty of things to be grateful for, and it’s important to recognize them every day.  I have found that these five, simple steps I have learned through research have helped cultivate my gratitude. Since I have been practicing them, I am a happier, more motivated person.

Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

There are a few simple steps you can take in order to cultivate gratitude. These practices can be done in five minutes throughout your day, or you can take a few minutes and go the extra mile for ultimate gratification. Either way, these tips will help you build your gratitude and give you boosts of happiness, increase your energy, and give you a higher sense of self esteem.

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say, “thank you”

Saying “thank you” to someone, whether it is in writing or verbally, is a great way to express gratitude. This can be done with a sticky note, sending a card, writing an email, or physically walking up to the individual and thanking them. Not only will it make the person who helped you feel happy that you recognized their good deed, but it will also boost your happiness, too.

keep a gratitude journal

Take some time out of your day to sit down and write about what you are grateful for. This can be done in bullet point format, or you can dig deeper and write a few paragraphs about why you are feeling grateful. Forming the habit to write in your journal will also help you be more aware of your gratitude throughout the day. Try not to be skeptical and think, “what if I have a bad day?” There will always be something to write in your journal even if it is: “I am alive.”

That’s something to be grateful for!

mentally count your blessings

When your day is starting to feel a little hectic, stop in your tracks and list a few things in your head that brings you gratitude. Doing so will help you focus on the positives rather than the negatives, and give you that little boost of energy and motivation you may need to keep going. While you’re sitting at your desk or driving in your car, mentally list all of the things you are grateful for. It definitely helps.

accept the bad, embrace the good

Everyone has negative experiences that they regret, but it’s crucial to look past those times and reflect on all of the positives going on.The true path to happiness is accepting your flaws, and generating a more positive outlook for the future. So, accept the bad and embrace the good. For every bad thought, challenge it with a positive one. You’ll find that the good outweighs the bad, and you are worth the fight.

use visual reminders

Keeping a visual reminder is an extremely helpful practice to boost your gratitude. At my desk, I keep pictures of my sister, fiancé, and closest friends close by to help remind me that I have plenty of things to be grateful for. Having visual reminders like photographs of your family, friends, and loved ones, or even a picture of an object or idea that brings you joy, is a quick and easy way to boost your gratitude.

Did I miss any? What are your thoughts on gratitude, and how to cultivate it? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

 

We’re engaged!

I’m so thrilled to share that Ian and I got engaged last night!

Here’s how it happened:

As we were decorating our beautiful Christmas tree, “Joy” (I name a lot of inanimate objects), Ian shared that he forgot to take out one special ornament that he purchased for us this year. I thought nothing of it, and thought it was odd that he purchased an ornament without me. Anyway, I put the last ornament on the tree, stepped back to admire our work, and Ian came in with a festive Christmas box.

“Can you open it, unwrap it and put it on the tree?” He asked. Again, unmoved by his request, I opened the box and unwrapped the contents. Inside the box was a single ornament, and inside the ornament was an engagement ring that hung from a piece of green string.

I lost it.

Crying, I asked, “WHAT IS THIS?!” …I knew what it was. Why did I ask that?

Ian laughed, and took the ornament from me.  He opened up the ornament, and took the ring from inside it. As he got down on one knee, my legs began to shake, and my heart was racing. This was it. We are getting married!

Ian and I met four years ago at CCSU, where we earned our undergraduate degrees. We met in British Literature, and became fast friends, sharing ideas, thoughts, writing, and more. We would meet around campus and talk about our day, and I couldn’t get over how charming and handsome this guy was. He was smart, funny, witty, and interested in all of the same things I was. We just clicked. He knew my reference to Les Miserables. Like, come on! How more perfect can this guy be?

The beginning of the next semester, at our hall council (dorm government, so to speak), Ian, who was elected president of our dorm, nominated me as vice president. I accepted, but I was unsure as to why he wanted me to be his vice president.

“He really just said, ‘I nominate Kassy to be my girlfriend,'” my friend Hope joked. I laughed and shrugged that off, thinking that he must just think I would be a good leader. Well, Hope was right…he liked me. He didn’t think I was a good leader at all….(kidding).

As time moved on and we continued to work together in our residence hall, I noticed one thing about Ian: he was incredibly annoying. Every idea, thought, or sentence that came from his mouth, I attacked. He did the same exact thing. We would constantly bicker over ideas, and I would go back to my room complaining about him to my roommates.

“You hate him because you like him,” my roommates would say. I knew they were right, but I would state, “I hate him because he only thinks his ideas are right.”

It was hilarious. What were we in, middle school? I soon realized that we were more alike than I originally thought.

At the end of the semester, Ian informed me that he was participating in this male pageant, Mr. CCSU. I thought it was cool, and told him that he would do really well. When he asked me to be his date, I was a little surprised. I said, “yes,” and immediately went to my mom’s house to grab a dress.

After Mr. CCSU, Ian and I discussed our feelings for each other, and decided that we wanted to try to date. A few weeks later, on May 24, 2012, Ian asked me to be his girlfriend, and I said, “yes.”

Now, last night, I said “yes” to spend the rest of my life with him.

For the last three and a half years, I have experienced the most fierce, passionate, and unconditional love. Love that I deemed impossible. Ian and I met when I was feeling broken, and unsafe. I was weary at first, but Ian tore down my walls and made me the luckiest woman on the planet. He’s supported me through some of the best times of my life, and embraced and cherished me at some of my worst. He is the most caring, loving, and compassionate man I have ever been blessed to know.

I can’t wait to continue our lives together, and take this incredible step. Throughout my entire life, I would lie awake and think about my future husband: where he was, what he was doing, what he was like. Ian is more than I have ever dreamed of, and I am so excited for our future together.

Engagement