By Kate Bennett, PsyD and Corrie Van Horne, RDN
With the new year comes a natural instinct to reflect, look back on the year that passed, and prepare for the year ahead. Often times, this process leads to new year’s resolutions: Lists of things that people want to accomplish to improve or change their lives. We would like to challenge the tradition of resolutions by making 2015 the year of new year’s intentions.
Resolutions are problematic because they focus on what people do not want in their lives (i.e. stop eating certain foods or get out of debt) and absolutes (i.e. lose a specific amount of weight or give up smoking instantly). The problem with focusing on you do not want in your life is that your brain hears what you do not want versus the negation of it. For example, if you think to yourself, I do not want to eat that chocolate cake at the party tonight, your brain is solely focused on the chocolate cake. As a result you cannot stop thinking about it, likely end up eating the cake, and ultimately feel bad about your “failure.” Absolutes, also known as all-or-nothing thinking, leave little room for flexibility or adaptability as life happens. Inevitably, when people create an absolute resolution, life happens (interferes with the rigidity of the desired change) and people give up. For example, if you decide to follow a certain diet in 2015 but then find yourself driving through New Mexico desert land, you are certain to feel anxious and defeated as you stop to order "bad" food. Why bother trying to improve your life if situations continue to interfere with the perfect pursuit of that new resolution?
Given that resolutions set people up for failure, we propose that you start 2015 off with intentions: Positive changes that you would like to pursue over the coming year. By focusing on what you want to happen, you are more likely to achieve it. Furthermore, intentions allow you to work towards a goal in small increments versus expect overnight success. This creates room for flexibility and adaptability while life happens and circumstances change.
Here are a few ideas for New Year’s Intentions that will help improve your happiness:
1. Make 2015 a year of gratitude. Over the past couple of years, gratitude has become an increasingly more popular topic of conversation in mainstream media and individual lives. There is good reason for it. Science links gratitude to happiness and well-being. If you want to improve your overall happiness, consider starting a daily gratitude journal. Commit to recording a few things that you are thankful for at some point each day. Remember, no matter how rotten the day, there is always something to be grateful for. Consider using this five year journal so that you can reflect back on past years as you maintain your journal over time.
2. Create time to connect authentically with others. As technology advances and social media increases in popularity, many people rely on texting, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to feel connected to others. While it is convenient to text a friend, enjoyable to peruse online pictures, and effortless to scroll through a Twitter feed, these activities tend to create more distance between friends than closeness. Set an intention to check-in weekly with friends or family members in-person or on the phone. You will be amazed by how much more satisfied you feel after spending an hour talking with a good friend compared to spending that same hour scrolling through Facebook.
3. Take up the practice of self-compassion. We live in a society that focuses on comparison and achievements to build respect and self-worth. The reality is that comparisons lead to negative self-talk and ultimately interfere with individual happiness, values, goals, and relationships. Rather than criticize yourself for another 365 days, commit to practicing self-compassion instead. Take time to engage in self-care (i.e. take a warm bath or go to bed early) when you are tired rather than force yourself to work late because a co-worker always seems one step ahead of you.
4. Look back to move ahead. Somewhere along the way, many of us learned that anything short of perfection is unacceptable and, worse, labels you as a failure. The reality is that nobody and nothing is perfect. In fact, the word imperfect spells “I’m Perfect.” Let 2015 become the year that you embrace both your strengths and weaknesses. Rather than constantly evaluate your flaws and search for areas of improvement, focus on your strengths and learn from your mistakes. Embrace mistakes as a learning opportunity. Great things come from those who are brave enough to identify what went wrong and use that information to try a second time (or third or fourth or fifth). Ask yourself, "What worked and what can I improve upon?"
5. Practice mindfulness daily. The eastern tradition of mindfulness and meditation is becoming an increasingly more mainstream practice and for a good reason: Too much distraction, comparison, criticism, and productivity takes away from the simple pleasures in life. When you slow your mind down, your awareness of the things right in front of you intensifies, the mind quiets, and contentment increases. Next time you notice yourself worrying, take a deep breath, figure out when you have time to address the problem (if you have not already done so), and let it go. Worrying every minute of the coming day will not solve the problem but it will interfere with happiness and satisfaction. Instead, focus on the friends and family right in front of you, enjoy the beautiful blue sky, or simply fall asleep. Let go and cherish the present moment.
If changing your relationship with food is the top priority for 2015, we encourage you to not focus on weight loss or restricting food intake but, rather, set intentions based on balance, variety, and moderation.
6. Slow down. While this can be difficult, it is important to slow down when it comes to planning, preparing, and eating food. When planning and preparing food, focus on what sounds good. Take time to plan meals and prepare the food while contemplating the gratitude that you feel for the food itself or other aspects of the food like nourishment, satisfaction, and possibly pleasure. When eating, take time to engage in all five senses, slowing down to enjoy and savor the textures, aromas, tastes, and visual aesthetic of your food.
7. Trust. We all have an inner wisdom, that with practice and perseverance, we can become attuned to. Our bodies are designed to regulate themselves, let us know when they need nourishment, and indicate what type of nourishment they need. Take time to listen to your intuition in order to grow and develop trust in your body and to develop a more balanced relationship with food. Note: Slowing down will enhance your ability to respond intuitively to hunger and fullness cues and trust your body.
8. Engage. Meal time can be a time to be still, to rest, and also a time to connect. When sitting down for a meal or a snack, whether it is with others or alone, fully engage in the process. If the meal is shared with others try to focus on the conversation and connection. If you are eating alone, bring awareness to your senses and the feelings and thoughts that come up for you while eating.
9. Nourish. Remember, food is a source of nourishment for the body and the connection that often happens at meal time is nourishment for the soul. Rather than focus on good or bad or right or wrong, take time to experience the nourishment of your body and soul, expressing the gratitude you may feel.
Finally, remember that while the start of a new year is a convenient time to implement positive changes in your life, you can set intentions and bring them into practice any day of the year. The most important thing to do is to identify where you want to head and then create daily steps for leading you in that direction.
May 2015 bring you joy and happiness as you learn from the past and move towards the future.