Resolutions for Happiness

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Every January, many Americans set resolutions for the new year—for example, to lose weight, quit smoking, and save money. To be honest, I haven’t always been a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions because I think we often set ourselves up for failure and disappointment by setting unattainable goals.

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If resolutions are a recipe for failure, why do we set them in the first place? For many, the new year offers a fresh start, and a resolution is an effort to make a personal change to become a better, happier person. The problem occurs when New Year’s resolutions target things—such as losing weight—that won’t actually make us better or happier people (for more on this topic, I recommend The Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky).  With that in mind, I offer 3 New Year’s resolutions that are grounded in the science of happiness. 

1.    Limit time on social media.

Social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides opportunities to stay in touch with out-of-town friends and relatives. On the other hand, spending too much time on social media may lead people to make unrealistic comparisons with other people and to disengage from their real-life friendships. As a result, people who spend many hours per week on social networking sites might find themselves feeling lonely and unhappy.

I was particularly struck by the results of a recent experiment investigating the effects of social media use on well-being1. For this study, participants were randomly assigned to either (a) restrict their use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 10 minutes, per platform, per day, or (b) continue using social media as usual. After three weeks, participants who restricted their social media use demonstrated less loneliness and fewer depressive symptoms.

These findings suggest that limiting social media use actually causes people to feel less lonely and less depressed. Count me in!

2.    Be kind to others

Focusing on other people is another practice based in science that will contribute to health and happiness.

Over the last several years, I have been investigating the effects of kind behavior on happiness and physical health. Cultural messages that the key to happiness is to “treat yourself” are widespread, but scientific evidence suggests that the key to happiness is to focus on others. I wanted to understand how these two types of behaviors compare with one another when it comes to happiness.

In one study, my colleagues and I randomly assigned people to perform acts of kindness for others or the world, to perform acts of kindness for themselves (i.e., the treat yourself group), or to simply keep track of their daily activities2. After four weeks, we found that people who performed acts of kindness for others or the world reported more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and greater overall happiness.

In a subsequent study, we used the same approach by assigning people to engage in acts of kindness for others, for the world, for themselves, or to write about their daily activities3. In this study, however, we were interested in whether this behavior change would result in changes at a biological level. We collected blood samples from our participants before and after they performed kind acts. We found that engaging in kindness improved a gene expression profile linked to inflammation, antibody, and antiviral responses, known as the Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity. In other words, kindness toward others resulted in actual biological changes that may improve physical health. 

Together, these studies suggest that engaging in kindness for others—not treating ourselves—can cause us to become happier, healthier people.  

3.    Write those gratitude letters

Finally, the science of happiness also suggests that expressing gratitude—and I mean really, genuinely thanking someone for something they’ve done for you—can also have huge benefits for our relationships and our happiness.

In one study investigating daily experiences of couples, expressions of gratitude were related to improvements in relationship connection and satisfaction the following day4. In addition, when people were randomly assigned to write letters of gratitude to important people in their lives (vs. keep track of their daily activities), they showed relatively greater improvements in happiness over the course of several weeks.5

So, dust off those thank you notes and tell your loved ones why you really appreciate them.

Final Suggestions

If you’re interested in becoming happier in the new year (or any time of year for that matter), then these small changes may be a place to start.

One common feature across these three resolutions is that they each target our relationships with others. Spending less time on social media allows us to spend more time in face-to-face interactions; being kind to others can help us to build relationships; and expressing gratitude fosters closeness in our existing relationships. 

These resolutions may also be beneficial because they are simple, concrete changes that can be easily incorporated to daily life. Behavior change can be hard to manage any time of year, but we are more likely to be successful if we can break it down into simple tasks.

Whether you choose to adopt these strategies or to create your own, I wish you a happy and healthy new year!

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