At this time of year, when some of us are already thinking about our new year’s resolutions, I’m encouraging you to invest a little time trying to understand a few things we could resolve that would help make us happier. We want to be happier, living a life of flourish, but we often chase both the wrong things and the wrong paths to get to them. It perhaps sounds strange but, people are awful at predicting what will make them happy. Even more disturbing is the fact that we are often disappointed when we get the very things we think we want. There are a few things that you should know before making your New Year Resolutions.
In one of the strongest statements against the possibility for change, Lykken and Tellegen, a pair of researchers from the Minnesota Twin Family Study suggested that “trying to be happier may be as futile as trying to be taller.” This study, which also coined the phrase, the hedonic treadmill, implies that our efforts to get somewhere, to be happier, don’t get us anywhere. I don’t believe this to be true, and below are three things that you may want to take into account when setting your goals for 2021.
New Year Resolutions the choice between possessions vs. experiences
What you should know about new year resolutions is that often it is a matter of choosing between possessions or experiences. There’s a logical assumption many people make when spending their money, that because a physical object lasts a long time, it will make us happier than an a one-off experience, like a vacation or a night out. But, a 20-year study by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, found the opposite to be true. “One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” says Dr. Gilovich. “We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness. Worse, according to this theory, as we make more money or buy more things, our expectations and desires for them rise in tandem.
Experiences on the other hand tend to provoke more satisfaction than time using material possessions. A possible explanation is the endurance of experiences in people’s memories, while the perceived value of material goods weakens over time. Moreover, our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods.
“You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”Dr Thomas Gilovich
Another reason that experiences win over possessions, is that they connect us more tightly to other people. You’re much likelier to feel connected to someone you went to school with, went on holiday together, than say someone who just happens to buy the same type of car or smart phone.
Add to your new year resolution list: conquering negativity
Negativity is, in general, thinking that whatever happens is most likely going to turn out bad. It doesn’t help that we are hardwired such that negative events have a much greater impact on our brains than positive ones, psychologists refer to this as the negativity bias, but there is a subtle difference between negativity and negative thinking.
The good type of negative thinking is why your mum checked if you packed a spare pair of pants on school trips. When your daughter is borrowing your car, when someone is asking you to take a risky investment decision, there’s good reason to think about worst case scenarios, it allows you to look at things more realistically, slows down decision making, and might save you money, or your life. Negative thinking often involves contemplating future events or outcomes where it is still possible to change the outcome; negativity, on the other hand, typically involves a habitual attitude of anger, cynicism, helplessness or sadness about things we cannot change. If you find yourself dwelling on an insult or fixating on your mistakes, and you keep playing it over and over in your mind, this is negativity, and it’s probably not doing you any good.
If you are someone who after an event takes place, finds yourself thinking “I shouldn’t have done that,” or focuses on things in a negative way, try to look for ways to reframe the situation in a more positive light. What did you learn? What would you do different next time?
Salvaging a funny story from your misfortunes can be a great way to turn the tide of negative thoughts. That old adage, “misery loves company,” is only partly true, “misery loves miserable company,” is more accurate. Humor is good medicine, the search for a funny aspect in a difficult moment can help us endure it, and when used to help others to copy, can be altruistic.
The Paradox of Choice
Psychologist Barry Schwartz took aim at a central tenet of western societies in his book The Paradox of Choice. Freedom of choice, in Schwartz’s estimation, has not made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied. Choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress.
In his book, Barry Schwartz explains that choice, the hallmark of individual freedom and self-determination that we so cherish—becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being, impacts the challenges of balancing career, family, and individual needs, and paradoxically becomes a problem instead of a solution.
Having too much choice, or choice overload, is a cognitive impairment in which people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options. Another factor which makes us less happy is FOMO, or the fear of missing out. To illustrate how FOMO works, imagine that you were shown 5 juicy oranges and told that one of them was the world’s tastiest, but you could only pick and eat one. Maybe you enjoyed your orange, but simply not knowing what the four other oranges taste likes lead to dissatisfaction. And, the more choices you have the worst it gets; if you have ten available choices, and you make a wrong decision, it’ll hurt more than if you only had 5 choices and made the same decision.
New Year’s Resolutions
So, when it comes to making your new year’s resolutions this year, try not to set yourself up for failure by setting goals that are vague, unrealistic, or influenced by what others expect of us. Because, if we ‘fail,’ we’re left feeling guilty, disappointed, and self-loathing—a far cry from the sense of confidence and empowerment we were after. Limit your choices, keep it simple, and try looking for something experiential. Happy new year, and here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2021!
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