Here’s an interesting statistic: 45% of Americans will kick off the New Year tomorrow with a list of resolutions for self-improvement. Only 8% will succeed, and their chance of success will go down with every decade past 30.
By far the most popular resolution (45%) is to lose weight and get fitter. Others in the top ten include getting organized, being happier, learning something new, quitting smoking or drinking, finding love, and spending more time with family and friends.
I’m all for setting goals. But most people fail to achieve them because they go about it all wrong. Instead of focusing on the process of living in a way that’s compatible with what’s really important to them—according to what they most value—they’re fixated on a specific vision of an end point that may or may not be achievable.
Take losing weight. There are countless plans for the dieter to choose from, all claiming to take off 10 or 20 pounds or more in a month. Just 30 days! And they all probably work, more or less, but only for a short time (or why would there be so many diet recidivists come January 1?).
A more effective and sustainable approach would be to consider why you want to lose weight. And if you can tie in the goal of weight loss with your other resolutions, even better. Is it to have more energy so you can get organized, learn something new, and spend more time with the important people in your life? Is it to prevent or control a chronic health problem so you can enjoy your family into old age? Is it to be more attractive so you can feel more confident and find love? Is it to feel more in control of your life so you can get organized and look for a more satisfying job?
If you’re taking steps—“committed actions”—leading you in the direction of what you truly value, you don’t have to wait for a month, or two, or six to fulfill your resolution. And you can work on several at once. Feeling a sense of accomplishment along the way will help head off the inevitable frustration causing so many to abandon their best intentions by Valentine’s Day.
So my advice is to make only one resolution this year: let your values guide your actions.
If winter is getting you down, consider putting a spring in your step—literally—to feel more energetic and happier.
It’s not hard to recognize people who are sad or depressed from the way they carry themselves: slumped shoulders, lowered gaze, downturned mouth, and shuffling gait. Happy people, in contrast, stand up straighter, make eye contact, smile, swing their arms, and bounce along at a brisk pace.
Short days and post-holiday doldrums can take their emotional toll; temperatures in the single digits may worsen the seasonal blues by limiting our exposure to sunlight and causing us, when we do brave the elements and venture outside, to bow our heads, hunker down against the cold, and pull our arms in tightly against our chests.
Posture, it turns out, can affect mood. The results of some recent research point to a connection between how we walk and how we feel.
In one study, undergraduates (who, due to their ready availability and incentives to participate, are the most commonly tested subjects in psychology experiments) were told to attempt to move a gauge as they walked on a treadmill. For one group, the gauge moved when they bounced along at a fast, “happy” clip; for the other, the gauge responded to a slowed, “depressed” pace.”
After being given a list of 40 words—half negative, such as “ugly” and half positive, such as “happy”—the subjects in the depressed group recalled more of the negative words. Another study by the same research team, which used people actually suffering from depression rather than randomly selected undergraduates, produced similar results when half the participants were told to slump. Subjects instructed to sit upright recalled fewer negative words.
Although more research with larger samples (each of the above studies tested fewer than 40 subjects) would be required to draw any broad conclusions, the results make intuitive sense. They also lend support to the framework underlying cognitive-behavioral therapy: making even small changes in behavior can help alter moods.
If walking isn’t an option–say you’re sitting at your desk and feeling in a funk with a deadline looming–try smiling. The act of putting on a happy face can activate neural pathways to boost serotonin and dopamine, two of the neurotransmitters targeted by most antidepressant medications.
To be clear, none of these microphysical adjustments will cure a serious case of depression. If you suffer from more severe, intractable mood problems, please seek professional intervention. But for the garden variety blahs so common this time of year, why not try walking happy? It just might help.
When people come to me for help with anxiety, I explain to them why relaxation won’t be part of the treatment plan. The typical response is often less than enthusiastic: “I don’t like feeling this way. Aren’t there techniques you can teach me so I can feel better?”
It’s understandable why someone with anxiety would want to alleviate the symptoms, which can be extremely uncomfortable–debilitating, even. But when avoidance is used to cope with the distressing feelings, the solution becomes the problem.
Avoidance is a natural response to a threatening situation, even if the threat is only a figment of a hyper-vigilant imagination. So if you’re given to worry or panic, you’re likely to steer clear of the places or events that set you off. Maybe you’ve stopped riding the Metro or declined career-advancing opportunities requiring public speaking or travel. Maybe you’ve stopped meeting friends for happy hour, taking vacations, or exercising (because you don’t want to risk elevating your heart rate). Maybe you’ve even put major life events–changing jobs, committing to a serious relationship, getting married, starting a family–on hold until you feel better.
You know you need to get your life back. But how?
The answer doesn’t involve a technique like relaxation. It requires a seismic mental shift: instead of moving away from anxiety, seek it out.
Scary, I know. And hard to execute, especially when you’ve gotten accustomed to organizing your actions around avoidance. But reclaiming all the activities you’ve relinquished in order not to rock the boat can be exhilarating.
I’m not suggesting you go full-tilt at first like the hapless character depicted in this classic Far Side cartoon, using “Professor Gallagher’s controversial technique” to overcome his fear of heights, snakes, and the dark by hanging from a high window in an enclosed chamber crawling with vipers. No need for total immersion (or “flooding,” as it’s called in behavior-therapy parlance). A gentler approach will work just as well–better, even–as long as you allow yourself to feel some discomfort.
If it’s too hard for you to execute such a plan on your own, consider enlisting the help of a cognitive-behavior therapist to help you bolster your resolve.
You have nothing to lose but your fear.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.