Each January sparks a flurry of New Year’s resolutions: drink less alcohol, eat better, quit smoking, spend less, exercise more, and so on. Many may try Dry January, 30-day diets or exercise challenges, or deleting social media apps – and the January Gym Rush speaks for itself. These goals can often be boiled down to two ambitions: to improve physical health and health outcomes and to promote mental wellness.
Generational Divides In Aspirations
According to data gathered by Statista, exercising more, eating healthier, and losing weight are the three most common New Year’s resolutions in the U.S. for 2023. But the statistics change based on age, with the primary goal of young adults aged between 18 to 25 years being: to improve mental health.
Forbes Health’s survey results reveal each generation’s priorities for the coming year. The top four resolutions for individuals between 26 and 41 years of age were to improve mental health, lose weight, improve fitness, and improve finances. Meanwhile, respondents between 42 and 57 years of age emphasized weight loss over mental health, followed by dietary changes.
Interestingly, the lowest percentage of survey respondents cited improving work performance as one of their goals for the year, preceded by resolutions to drink less alcohol and meditate regularly.
Resolving To Not
Some have given up the age-old practice altogether, opting for incremental change – or the accumulation of small wins in a larger effort to attain their goals – over dramatic (and short-lived) attempts at complete self-reinvention. This strategy tends to be more effective as research has revealed that habits cannot be changed with sheer force; they must be replaced by another habit and bolstered by cues, motivation, and rewards.
While new year-inspired motivation may effectively fuel change for some individuals, there’s a reason the same goals land on our list every year: New Year’s resolutions simply don’t work.
To help promote positive habit development for lasting change and long-term health benefits, we have compiled a list of some of our favorite suggestions, tips, and exercises to kick off the new year.
Tips and Habits For Lasting Happiness and Health
Pick A Word-of-the-Year
Tara Parker-Pope, a journalist for The Washington Post, recently shared an annual practice that can help you reflect on the previous year and clarify your intentions for the new year.
Rather than setting a specific goal, Parker-Pope recommends choosing a personal nudge word that captures the mindset you want to adopt in 2023 and how you want to live this year. This single word aims to act as a reminder or nudge toward positive change whenever it comes to your mind.
Encapsulate your vision for 2023 in a word that resonates with you, and see if it can serve as a helpful guide in your daily life.
Read More Books
In addition to being a relaxing pastime and great addition to a nighttime routine, reading books is also a health intervention with numerous benefits. Simply swapping out evening social media scrolling with page flipping can lead to increased brain connectivity, improved cognitive function (with a decreased risk of neurodegenerative disease), and even an enhanced life span.
A 2009 study reported that 30 minutes of reading lowered several stress markers: decreased blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of distress. The findings revealed that reading was just as effective as yoga and humor for stress reduction.
Start small by picking an interesting book of manageable length and carve out a few minutes to read whenever your schedule allows. Adding this habit to an established routine will heighten the chances of it becoming permanent, and you will enjoy neuroprotective benefits for many years to come.
Tackle Task Paralysis
If you find yourself frozen in front of a daunting to-do list or time-sensitive task as precious time slips by, you may be experiencing task paralysis – an anxiety phenomenon that often leads to procrastination and avoidance. Even a few dreaded to-do items and tasks tattooed on your list can drain energy, heighten daily stress levels, and negatively impact your quality of life.
To tackle this, you can remind yourself why the tasks are important (to you or someone in your life), break each one down into smaller, more tangible steps, and promise yourself small rewards for completing them.
Schedule Worry Time
Nighttime rumination and daily anxiety are common culprits underlying lost sleep, productivity, and joy. Instead of allowing worry to run rampant throughout your day, scheduling time devoted to worrying can reduce anxiety and promote positive change.
As a daily practice, scheduled worry time requires carving out 10-30 minutes to sit and write down all your anxieties, fears, and fixations on a piece of paper without the need to understand or solve them. Offloading stress during a designated part of your day can prevent a cycle of rumination and the underlying stress that can interfere with your daily life and leisure activities.
Instead of letting anxious thoughts take over your train of thought, try saving your worries for worry time. You don’t have to focus solely on worrying; you can use this time to find solutions to the issues, read the news, or tackle other stressful activities. Remember to mark a clear transition out of scheduled worry time with a positive activity, timer, or by moving locations.
Take A Vacation Every Day
A commonly propagated and held belief is that the optimal state of emotional well-being is happiness and that the goal is to maintain this feeling all the time. But that is neither true nor possible. Happiness is a skill that takes practice and a result of consistent positive habits.
Factors outside our control aside, happiness can be cultivated through small but powerful habits, such as meditating and practicing gratitude.
Studies have found that gratitude can significantly increase happiness and life satisfaction while decreasing depressive levels. Instead of focusing on a lack of joy or the numerous variables contributing to anxiety and depression, actively pay attention to good feelings as they arise and take note of things you are grateful for.
In essence, be present and let yourself enjoy the moments that make you happy. These do not have to be life-altering events; simply stopping to get your favorite coffee on the way to work or saying yes to dessert are opportunities to pause and engage in joy. Some refer to it as “taking a vacation every day”; others call it self-care but no matter the name, being mindful of what brings you happiness and celebrating these joyful moments, no matter how small, can have a substantial impact on mental health.
Stand On One Leg
While it is widely recognized that aerobic fitness is an important marker of health, non-aerobic fitness (muscle strength, flexibility, etc.) tends to receive less attention. Many people may be surprised to learn how important balance is for longevity and how critical this non-aerobic skill is for survival.
In middle-aged and older adults, the ability to balance on one leg is closely connected to life expectancy, all-cause mortality, and quality of life. A 2022 Brazilian study reported a correlation between the inability to balance on one leg with a twofold increase in all-cause mortality within ten years.
Hilary Achauer emphasized the relationship between balance and life expectancy in a recent The New York Times article: “Researchers have previously connected balance and strength with mortality, finding that the ability to rise from the floor to a standing position, balance on one leg for 30 seconds with one eye closed and even walk at a brisk pace are all tied to longevity.”
Incorporate balance-enhancing exercises – such as the single-leg stance and lateral leg lifts – into your workout routine, stand on one leg while you brush your teeth, or start taking yoga classes to ensure you can reap the benefits of all your new year habits.
Listen To Noise
Several kinds of noise have recently grown in online popularity due to anecdotal claims that they can soothe, inspire, awaken, and put you to sleep. Named as colors and differentiated by frequency, these background noises can be used in various contexts, from the medical office to a children’s bedroom.
A growing body of research indicates that white, pink, and brown noises can help promote feelings of calmness and improve sleep quality, while the full spectrum of noise colors and benefits remains under investigation. As a result, sound machines, Spotify playlists, and entire YouTube channels dedicated to specific types of noise are now widely available.
Depending on the desired effect, the following breakdown can help you choose which type of noise to play.
White: Helps tinnitus and insomnia, promotes relaxation, blocks background noise, and can reduce crying in babies.
Brown: Promotes calmness, enhances focus and concentration, and can be particularly effective among people with attention deficit disorder.
Pink: Reduces brain waves, promotes deep sleep, improves work performance, and works as a potential sleep aid.
Small Steps, Big Changes
The longevity of our healthy habits is what matters, not the steadfastness with which we set out to develop them. Instead of starting the new year by setting grand resolutions that are difficult to maintain, it may be more effective to take smaller positive actions and build upon them over time. By taking daily steps to form healthy habits and focusing on sustainable behavior change, we can make lasting improvements to our lives. But it’s important to remember that progress, not perfection, is the goal.