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JMU researcher offers tips on setting goals for 2020

new year 2020
Photo Credit: Romolo Tavani/Adobe Stock

JMU psychology professor Jaime Kurtz approaches New Year’s resolutions from a research-based perspective.

Kurtz, whose areas of research include happiness, savoring and positive psychology, offers insight into new ways to look at how you can look to getting off to a feel-good start to 2020.

1. Find a new activity

One of the challenges to lasting happiness lies in the fact that we adapt to the pleasant but ordinary stuff of everyday life. Combat this by trying something new. Start small: Try a new class at the gym. Take a pottery class. Cook something exotic. Or go bigger: Learn a new language. Register for a triathlon. Audition for community theater. You might uncover a latent talent or passion, make new friends, or feel more connected to your community. Don’t forget the oft-cited finding that experiences, not things, are related to happiness. Take advantage of all of the rich experiences that lie just outside of your comfort zone.

2. Volunteer

There is ample evidence to suggest that doing prosocial behaviors—actions that are done to benefit others—brings surprising benefits to the person performing the kind acts. From random acts of kindness to spending a small amount of money on others, there is a clear mood boost that comes from doing a kindness. As positive psychology research pioneer Marty Seligman once remarked, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” So find a cause you care about and get involved. Or simply offer to drive a friend to the airport or the doctor’s office. Prosocial behavior is a win-win.

3. Prioritize face-to-face contact

Social connection and a sense of belonging are fundamental human needs. But if you’re like most people, much of your socializing may take the form of texts, emails, Snapchats, and Facebook likes. However, nothing can replace the familiar voice of a loved one, a shared laugh, or a deep conversation over dinner. Virtual communication deprives us of these conversational riches, and perhaps as a result, is related to a decrease in daily mood. Face-to-face contact, however, enhances physical health, perceived social support, and happiness in surprisingly potent ways. So consider making more time to connect with your favorite people in person. It might be the best small change you make.

4. Express gratitude

In one groundbreaking study, the simple act of counting your blessings—that is, writing down three things that you’re grateful for—showed surprising benefits for participants’ mental and physical health. Why? One reason is that it takes the blinders off, encouraging us to examine and appreciate small things that might otherwise go unnoticed. And it can enhance our relationships, too: Recent findings suggest that expressing gratitude in relationship contexts can enhance intimate bonds, so don’t be afraid to offer a genuine “thank you” to your partner.

The tough part is enacting them and committing to performing them regularly, Kurtz said. “In the same way that you can’t eat a kale salad once and declare yourself a healthy person, you can’t write in a gratitude journal or volunteer just once and expect to be lastingly happier. Give some thought to how you will successfully incorporate your chosen activity into your life in a way that will stick.”

Kurtz also recommends making any behavior change easy to do. “Remove barriers, and make it as rewarding as you can. You might want to give yourself a goodie for doing it, at least for a while!”

As with any goal, the key is finding something that fits your schedule, lifestyle and personality, and then sticking to it.

augusta free press
augusta free press