For a healthier 2021, keep the best habits from a very bad year
By Tara Parker-Pope
Here’s a better way to start the new year: Skip the traditional January resolutions and make time for some New Year’s reflection instead.
Take a moment to look back on the past 365 days of your life. Years from now, when you talk about 2020, what stories will you tell? Will it be clapping for health care workers every night at 7? Or perhaps it will be a memory from the months spent mostly at home with family members — or the pandemic “bubbles” you formed that helped friendships grow stronger. Maybe you will tell the story of losing someone you loved or remember finding strength and resilience you didn’t know you had.
While reliving much of 2020 may sound like a terrible idea, psychologists say it’s a better way to start the new year. Looking back will help you build on the lessons you learned, and you may even discover some hidden positive habits you didn’t realize you had started.
“I don’t think we’ve given ourselves enough credit,” said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and the author of “The Willpower Instinct.”
“I don’t think we have had the emotional appreciation that we need and deserve for the kind of year many people have had,” McGonigal said. “The reflection that’s needed right now is a real, honest and self-compassionate look at what’s been lost, who’s been lost and what it is that you want to choose to remember about 2020. Reflection is a way of being ready to move forward into the new year. I say that every year, but I think that it’s especially true for this year.”
Reflections vs. resolutions
Reflecting on what you accomplished in 2020 — and what you missed or lost — is also a healthier path toward self-improvement than the typical New Year’s resolution. Studies consistently show that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. By February, most people have abandoned them.
The problem with many resolutions is that they tend to be inherently self-critical and stem from a sort of magical thinking that with one big change — some weight loss, regular exercise, more money — life will be transformed. “It’s just too easy to look for a behavior that you regularly criticize yourself for, or feel guilty about,” McGonigal said. “It’s that false promise of, ‘If you change this one thing, you’ll change everything.’ ”
Studies show that one of the best ways to change behavior and form a new habit is to bundle it with an existing behavior — what in the science of habit formation is called “stacking.” It’s the reason doctors, for example, suggest taking a new medication at the same time you brush your teeth or have your morning coffee: You’re more likely to remember to take your pill when you piggyback it onto an existing habit. Adding steps to your daily commute is often a better way to add exercise to your day than trying to carve out a separate time for a daily walk.
By reflecting on the lessons of the past year, we can stack and build on the good habits we started in 2020. Maybe that involved figuring out new ways to exercise when gyms were closed, strengthening friendships forged through our social bubbles, organizing our homes for 24/7 living and learning, learning to cook healthier meals or making ourselves accountable for the care of others.
Now, with the distribution of vaccines and the end to the pandemic in sight, you don’t need to abandon those changes — instead, try building on them. The first challenge is listed below.
Every day this week, the 7-Day Well Challenge will identify a popular quarantine habit and offer a new strategy for turning it into a healthy lifelong habit. Just sign up for the Well newsletter at nytimes.com/newsletters/well, and you’ll receive a daily email reminder to join the next day’s challenge.
Build on your gratitude habit
Quarantine clapping became a nightly ritual in many parts of the United States and around the world as a collective thanks to health care workers. It was both a show of community and a show of gratitude. The experience was what sociologists call “collective effervescence,” which happens when people simultaneously come together and take part in a group ritual.
Clapping for essential workers had the effect of “both unifying and energizing the group for action toward a common cause, such as persevering through the pandemic,” said Joshua W. Brown, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. “Group expressions of gratitude can be empowering for both those expressing it and those receiving it.”
Perhaps you showed gratitude in other ways. Did you offer larger tips than usual to delivery and restaurant workers? Did you find yourself saying a heartfelt thank you to the grocery and pharmacy workers at checkout? When things got tough at home, did you remind yourself and your children of all the things for which you felt grateful? I adopted a regular gratitude hand-washing ritual, thinking of 10 things to be grateful for — one for every finger I washed.
Why it matters: Numerous studies show that people who have a daily gratitude practice, in which they consciously count their blessings, tend to be happier, have lower stress levels, sleep better and are less likely to experience depression. In one study, researchers recruited 300 adults, most of them college students seeking mental health counseling. All the volunteers received counseling, but one group added a writing exercise focused on bad experiences, while another group wrote a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. A month later, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health. And the effect appears to last. Three months later, the researchers scanned the brains of students while they completed a different gratitude exercise. The students who had written gratitude letters earlier in the study showed greater activation in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, believed to be related to both reward and higher-level cognition.
Take the gratitude challenge
This week, try one or more of these simple gratitude exercises.
Start small. Send an appreciative email or text, thank a service worker or tell your children, your spouse or a friend how they have made your life better. “A great way to develop more gratitude would be regular small steps — an extra email or note of appreciation to a colleague, or an extra in-person thank-you, and a focus on how rewarding it is to brighten someone’s day with appreciation,” Brown said.
Create a gratitude reminder. McGonigal keeps a sticky note on her desk lamp that reads:
1. Someone2. Something3. Yourself
It’s a daily reminder to express gratitude not only for the people, events and gifts in her life but also for her own accomplishments. She might feel gratitude for completing a workout, for a healthy body or for taking on a new challenge. “Gratitude is really good when what you need is a belief in your ability to create a more positive future and a willingness to trust others to help you do that,” McGonigal said. “And that feels like a really good mindset for right now.”
Express your gratitude in writing. You can send emails or post feelings of gratitude on social media or in a group chat. Or think of someone in your life and write that person a letter of gratitude. (You don’t have to mail it.) Fill your letter with details describing how this person influenced your life and the things you appreciate about him or her. Or keep a daily gratitude journal.
“I think the full potential of gratitude is realized when people are able to express gratitude in words,” said Y. Joel Wong, chairman of the department of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University. “When we are able to say what we’re grateful for and explain why, it shifts our attention from what’s negative to what’s positive in our lives.”