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Seeking Happiness in the New Year

Eat better. Visit there. Learn more. It’s a new year, and once again we’re making promises to ourselves that might not last through December. But if happiness is your goal, there's a science to making New Year's resolutions that deliver.

The new field of "positive psychology" has emerged in the last 20 years. “Rather than dwelling on people’s shortcomings, it focuses on people’s strengths and how to build on those characteristics. The resulting research offers some hope for improving your happiness and well-being in the coming year,” says Pamela M. Propsom, a professor of psychology who teaches a course on the psychology of happiness at DePauw University.

Propsom recommends the following ways to shape achievable New Year’s resolutions that guide you toward life satisfaction:

1. Change activities rather than circumstances

Many of us feel that if we just get a nicer house or move somewhere else we will be happier, but changing life circumstances is less likely to produce improvements in well-being than voluntary changes in one’s activities. Once you get that new house, you become used to it, and it no longer brings you the same joy it did initially. On the other hand, daily activities provide a steady stream of fresh, positive experiences.

2. Enjoy the pursuit

People are happier when they set a goal for themselves and work toward it. As happiness expert Sonya Lyubomirsky advises: Remember that happiness will come from pursuing goals, and not necessarily from achieving them. Whether it’s getting a better job or learning a new hobby, goal pursuit gives us a purpose, a chance to develop mastery, and can lead to engaging with other people. 

3. Be a helper

Often, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to focus on others. This can bring genuine benefit to another person, and it has the positive side effect of distracting the helper from their own woes and making them feel more competent. Research suggests that providing social support for others can be even more beneficial than receiving it oneself.

Experiences keep on giving: they can be relived through memories and talking about the event with others, continuing to give us that positive glow.

4. Buy experiences, not possessions

Researchers have found that people are happier when they spend their discretionary income on having life experiences rather than acquiring new possessions. As noted above, we tend to get used to our possessions and adapt to them; over time they don’t continue to make us happy, and therefore, we’re on a constant treadmill, always requiring something new to give us that mood boost. On the other hand, experiences keep on giving: they can be relived through memories and talking about the event with others, continuing to give us that positive glow.

5. Try to focus on people, not money

Sure, we need money to survive, but once we have a basic level of income, more money doesn’t add that much to our happiness. A variety of studies have concluded that people—even as young as toddlers!—were happier when they used their resources on people other than themselves.

6. Follow common religious practices

Generally speaking, people who are religious tend to be happier and healthier than those who aren't. However, many of the same benefits can be achieved simply by emulating common religious practices: express gratitude, forgive, find hope, serve others, discover a sense of purpose or meaning, and engage in community.

An empty bench in front of an expanse of water in the DePauw Nature Park
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Go screen-free at the DePauw Nature Park

7. Turn away from screens and toward nature

Although TV is relaxing, it tends to make people feel weak and passive compared to other leisure activities. And although social media can keep you connected to your friends, it also has its downsides. The constant comparison with what and how well our Instagram friends are doing can lead us to feel bad about ourselves. Disconnect from your electronics and reconnect with nature. There is a growing body of research suggesting that nature can restore us: refocusing our attention, calming us, and making us happier.

8. Satisfice (satisfy + suffice)

We all want to make the best choice when arriving at a decision, but how far are we willing to go to achieve that outcome? Is a good option (rather than a perfect one) “good enough?” Satisficers (those with the goal of finding a “good enough” option) tend to be happier with their choices than maximizers, who continue to question whether they made the best decision and are more dissatisfied.

So, try to set goals for the coming year that are good enough, and there's a good chance you'll end up happy enough.

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