So often, around the New Year, we as a society collectively get inspired to do some self-improvement. We make ambitious goals that often fall by the wayside weeks after they were so committedly made. Often, when aiming for greater “wellness” – the much-hyped buzzword of recent years—we think we should go big or go home. We think that in order for change to be meaningful, it has to be huge, wholesale, and perfectly consistent. Thankfully for everyone, the data is in—and this is not the case. Behavioral scientists insist that most lasting, positive change begins with small, simple, and achievable actions. All of us have the capacity to make tiny changes that put us on the road to happier, healthier, more satisfying lives.
Even a little exercise
Scores of recent studies have shown that even tiny periods of exercise have real and lasting benefits. What a comfort to learn that you don’t need an hour a day to reap the positive benefits of physical movement. Reputable studies have shown that even one minute of all-out exercise has meaningful benefits for cardiovascular and muscular health—even coming close to the same benefits of an hour of endurance exercise. Another recent study showed that people who moved throughout the day were happier than those who were sedentary, and this didn’t even mean rigorous exercise—even a gentle walk does the trick. Moreover, the Buddhists have long claimed that exercise confers a “new mind;” -experiment with physical activity and see how it can lead to a new perspective and a better mood. When only a minute or few minutes of exercise are required, suddenly these gains are accessible to anyone, no matter how out of shape or busy you are.
Make time to connect
Countless studies show that good social relationships are the biggest indicators of a happy life. Some go as far as to suggest that humans can’t actually be happy without them. These findings appear to be true regardless of race, age, gender, income, and social class, indicating that they appear to be part of our biological makeup. The data actually suggests that if we want to be happy, we should really be aiming to spend less time alone. Moreover, neglecting our social connections is actually surprisingly risky for our overall health. Research shows that a lack of social connection leads to a higher risk of premature death—with the same risk level as smoking—and is roughly twice as dangerous to our health as being overweight.
The good news is that the connections we need aren’t hard to find or nurture. We can get them almost effortlessly in our day-to-day lives. Taking a moment to make eye contact with the cashier at the grocery store counts. So does asking the bus driver how they are, calling our mothers and learning our neighbors’ names. The people around us—no matter how imperfect—will do just fine. As we seek out more of these small, seemingly insignificant interactions, we will gain more of a sense of connectedness. It will do wonders for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
Practice happy thinking
Making a habit out of positive thinking is no small task. It is so easy to revert to negativity and the tired old stories we have about how hard life is. But small, intentional shifts towards positivity can go a long way towards reframing our days and making big impacts in our lives. Next time a negative thought comes, notice it in a friendly way. No need to chase it away, but try to reframe the same thought from a perspective of gratitude. Instead of “my co-worker is being so short with me today” try “my co-worker is being really efficient today.” These micro-shifts have the potential to literally re-wire our brains into being more positive, happy people.
Eat a little something nourishing each day
Everyone could eat a little better, right? So often, in an enthusiastic attempt at self-improvement, we make big pronouncements and attempt rigid eating plans, like totally cutting out sugar or carbs for example. Generally, these plans don’t last long, or if we do complete a program, we bounce back to our pre-diet habits with a vengeance.
Recent science has consistently shown that when we try to instigate change from a starting point of dissatisfaction – i.e. “I’m so overweight”, “I hate my body,” etc.…. the change seldom sticks. Other science has shown that any time the brain feels restricted – “I am not allowed to have x, y, or z”, we usually want more of whatever we aren’t supposed to have.
In short, these strategies tend not to work. Here is what I propose: let’s all try to eat even one nourishing thing a day. It may be so simple it sounds radical, but it is actually much easier than forcing some huge, wholesale transformation of our eating habits. We are much more likely to have success with this kinder approach, and data shows that small successes are deeply satisfying to our brains—therefore making us more motivated to continue with the positive habit. So here’s to a salad a day. Or a piece of fruit instead of candy; or the simple daily goal of a few whole foods, the less processed the better.
Onward and upwards this 2019! Let us know how it goes!