Have you ever noticed that New Year’s resolutions often focus on our external selves? We set goals to get fit, eat healthier, and lose weight. This year, why not focus on your inner self by setting a goal to cultivate happiness? Who doesn’t want “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile?" (The definition of happiness, according to researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, The How of Happiness.)
While it may sometimes seem impossible to increase happiness, research indicates that you can introduce brief practices into your daily life to generate more contentment and joy. Here are five simple, science-backed practices that can get you on the happiness track this year. Pick one, or experiment with them all.
1. Keep a Gratitude Journal
A gratitude journal can be a quick nighttime ritual that has a lot of bang for its buck. According to Robert Emmons, Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, keeping a log of the highlights of your day can magnify positive emotions, boost your immune system, curb loneliness, and more. At a time that works for you, think back on your day and write down five highlights—which may include positive events, meaningful interactions, or special moments. This practice can help you focus on the good parts of your day (and life) and combat your brain’s negativity bias.
2. Befriend Yourself
Have you ever noticed how you speak to yourself? Would you speak to any of your friends with the same amount of criticism and judgment? Probably not, or else you wouldn’t have any friends!
Start paying attention to your inner voice, and see if you can begin to treat yourself the same way you treat your friends. Being kind to yourself is one major element of self-compassion, and various studies by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and colleagues indicate that increased levels of self-compassion correlate to less anxiety and greater overall well-being.
To practice befriending yourself, try the below exercise, inspired from Dr. Neff.
- Think about a time when a close friend feels badly about himself or is really struggling. How would you respond to your friend in this situation? Write down what you typically do, what you say, and note your tone.
- Now think about a time when you felt badly about yourself or were struggling. How would you typically respond to yourself? Write down what you typically do and say, and note your tone of voice.
- Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why? What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself differently than you treat others? Write down your thoughts.
- Consider what might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend. Write down what comes up for you.
3. Practice Mindfulness
In his book Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness.” That sounds pretty easy, right? When you practice mindfulness, you’re aware of what’s happening around you and within you. Your mind isn’t obsessing over the past or worrying about the future.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it sounds, because human brains are wired to think ahead and obsess about the past. You need to consciously make mindfulness a part of your life in order to curb your wandering mind.
Research from Harvard University suggests that “wandering minds are unhappy minds.” Thankfully, it doesn’t take much effort to sprinkle mindfulness throughout your day. You can start by incorporating mindfulness into daily tasks like showering, chopping vegetables, and driving. When you notice your mind wandering, usher it back to the present moment by paying attention to what you feel, hear, smell, see, and taste.
You can enhance mindfulness through meditation. Try one of these guided meditations, and train your mind to return to the present moment.
4. “Compassion It”
Make compassion a verb each day: Help your neighbor, your colleague, your spouse, or your friends. Simple gestures like texting an encouraging note or listening without judgment can give your friends, and you, a boost.
Many scientific studies suggest that compassion improves an overall sense of well-being. For a quick summary on scientific benefits of compassion, check out this infographic by author and researcher Emma Seppala, Ph.D..
5. Get Silly
Research indicates the psychological and physiological benefits of dancing, singing, and laughing. So why not join a choir, take some dance classes, sing at the top of your lungs in the shower, or even start dance parties in your kitchen while you’re making dinner?
If you need a suggestion for a song to get you started, try Happy by Pharrell Williams. It’s one of my personal favorite pick-me-ups.
Here’s to a Happy New Year!