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New Year's resolutions often revolve around giving up, cutting down, or starting a strict new regime, especially after an 'eat, drink and be merry' kind of Christmas. But if there ever was a year when we needed fun, enjoyment, laughter and kindness rather than self-deprivation, it's this one.
Resolutions themselves aren't a bad thing – they can generate a sense of purpose and direction. But they don't have to be punitive or restrictive to be effective. Resolutions based on what psychologists call 'approach goals' – positive changes that add things to your life, such as new interests, connections, life satisfaction or enjoyment – are far more effective than 'avoidance goals'.
The human brain hates to feel deprived, so although the stick approach might work in the short term, most of us need a carrot to keep going for the long haul.
So, before you scribble 'lose 10lbs', 'cut down on caffeine' or 'give up alcohol' on your resolutions list, consider these goals instead. With these mindset tweaks in place, chances are you'll naturally find yourself making healthier choices and taking better care of yourself.
'How can I be kinder to myself?' is one of the most life-changing questions you can ask. For most, it means kicking a self-criticism habit and accepting that you're human, like everyone else, and that you make mistakes. As well as making us more resilient to the negative effects of stress, research has found that practising self-compassion also makes us more motivated to make positive changes, including eating healthily and losing weight.1
Being compassionate with yourself, especially when you veer off your healthy living track, allows you to learn from your mistakes, pick yourself up and carry on. By contrast, berating yourself for having 'no willpower' undermines both your self-confidence and your motivation.
Making time to reflect on what's going well is not just good for your frame of mind; it can actually give your brain health a boost, according to a new study.2 Researchers found that people who feel enthusiastic and upbeat about life are less likely to experience memory decline. And when you're reflecting on what's going well, think about the part you played in it.
Most people's brains have a negativity bias that highlights problems, so we have to consciously make an effort to focus on our successes and what's going well. Do it regularly and you'll boost both mood and self-esteem.
Taking up a satisfying hobby that puts you in a good mood can boost longevity, according to research from University College London. Any activity that is enjoyable and engaging can contribute to a sense of life being worthwhile, and that contributes to general wellbeing and flourishing in later life; this is according to findings from the English Longitutinal Study of Ageing, which has studied 18,000 men and women over 50 for more than 20 years.3
The study found that people who felt engaged in worthwhile activities were more likely to walk faster, sleep better and suffer less chronic pain. And doing things you enjoy is as effective at treating the symptoms of depression as talking therapy,4 according to a new study from the University of Exeter. If you're stumped for suggestions, think about what you loved doing when you were seven – whether that's getting out on your bike, tap dancing or sketching.
A good reason to watch more comedies: blood flow is increased by more than 20 per cent for up to 45 minutes after watching a funny film, a similar effect to exercise, according to cardiologist Dr Michael Miller from the University of Maryland.5 He thinks it may explain why people with a strong sense of humour have a reduced risk of heart disease.6
The theory is that every time you laugh, the endothelium or inner lining of the artery walls expands, allowing blood to flow more freely. Laughing is also thought to be a good general immune system booster, as it increases immunoglobulins, natural killer cells and T cells in the body, which fight infection.7
Happiness levels are boosted by nine per cent for every club you belong to,8 and being a member of two clubs has been found to be as protective for health as physical exercise.9 If time or logistics stop you joining a group, join a forum or support group online, or start a WhatsApp group with friends who share your goals.
Sally is a trained psychotherapist and health and lifestyle writer, working for national newspapers and magazines.
Find out more about Sally Brown.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Breines, J.G. and Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38(9), pp.1133-1143
2Association for Psychological Science (2020). Positive Outlook Predicts Less Memory Decline, Association for Psychological Science
3UCL (2019). Meaningful life tied to healthy ageing, UCL
4University of Exeter (2020). Behavioural Activation as effective as CBT for depression, at lower cost, University of Exeter
5Miller, M. and Fry, W.F. (2009). The effect of mirthful laughter on the human cardiovascular system, Medical hypotheses 73(5), pp.636-639
6Hayashi, K., Kawachi, I., Ohira, T., Kondo, K., Shirai, K. and Kondo, N. (2016). Laughter is the best medicine? A cross-sectional study of cardiovascular disease among older Japanese adults, Journal of epidemiology 26(10), pp.546-552
7Laughter Online University (2012). Why Laughter Is Good For The Immune System, Inner Cellular Pharmacy
8Wakefield, J.R.H., Sani, F., Madhok, V., Norbury, M., Dugard, P., Gabbanelli, C., Arnetoli, M., Beconcini, G., Botindari, L., Grifoni, F. and Paoli, P. (2017). The relationship between group identification and satisfaction with life in a cross-cultural community sample, Journal of happiness studies 18(3), pp.785-807
9Steffens, N.K., Cruwys, T., Haslam, C., Jetten, J. and Haslam, S.A. (2016). Social group memberships in retirement are associated with reduced risk of premature death: evidence from a longitudinal cohort study, BMJ open 6(2)