How many New Year resolutions or goals have you ever set for yourself? How many of those did you ever accomplish? Probably not many, if any at all. There is a very natural reason for this. Habits. Many goals we set for ourselves have to do either with forming new habits or changing existing ones. The science of changing existing habits means you naturally need to form new ones (read our article on Habits for a quick explanation of the neurobiology of habits). Thus, whatever new goals you want to set yourself, it will involve changing your existing habits. This is obviously not easy and takes time and practice as habits are automatic and conditioned actions and behaviours. Yet Pulitzer Prize winner and leading author on the science of habit formation, Charles Duhigg, suggests that starting with small actions is the best, and possibly only, way to changing yourself and accomplishing something bigger. In light of this, here is a list of small actions you can start doing right now.
Goals: When you’re feeling down or overwhelmed, think about your long term goals. By visualising your desired future self you are inevitably stimulating the reward system of your brain; releasing dopamine and giving your brain a sense of control.
Smile! : When your brain is overloaded with information, it looks for biofeedback to figure out a response. You can outsmart your brain by smiling. Curl up the corners of your mouth, lifting up your cheeks and crinkling your eyes. While a feeling of happiness causes you to smile, it is also true that a facial expression that closely resembles the pattern of muscles that are used to express happiness can cause you to experience a corresponding emotion (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/smile-it-could-make-you-happier/) Some theorists argue that cognitively you do not even have to know that you have a particular expression on your face for the “facial feedback effect” to occur; that is, the physiology of a particular facial expression can affect your emotional experience. Thus, smiling can make you happier.
Music: We all know that listening to music feels good! But listening to music from the happier periods of your life can bring about a positive mental state that can last you throughout the day. Learning to play a musical instrument is obviously far more rewarding in terms of cognitive benefits including the development of more complex neuronal synapses aiding neuroplasticity. But if you never learned how to play a musical instrument or don’t ever intend to, at least dance to the music you listen to! Dancing demands speedy decision making and requires instant responses, as well as slows down aging and improves memory, by training your muscles to visualise and remember certain moves as well as “feel” and recognise certain notes or pieces of music.
Sleep: Feeling depressed may hinder your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. However, a lack of sleep or even bad sleep can actually lead to depression. Lack of sleep wreaks havoc on your brain and entire nervous system. Sleep is not only vital for our survival but it actually clears neurotoxins from our system associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep deprivation can affect everything from cognition to attention to decision-making; having a negative impact on cognitive functions like attention and working memory. The brain makes a lot of connections during the day, but not all of them are worth saving; so sleep is a time in which the brain streamlines the connections it “needs” and allows us to process and store information we’ve acquired over the day. If you’ve had a particularly bad or stressful day and finding it hard to fall asleep, try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. You can actually use this breathing technique as stress relief in a number of situations. Various forms of physical activity and general exercise can improve sleep.
Walk: Wherever possible, don’t drive or take public transport. Walking not only allows us to pace and improve our breathing; which has been shown to enhance emotional judgement and memory recall, but by exercising and exposing yourself to fresh air and sunlight it can improve serotonin (mood regulation) and sleep systems. Furthermore, a recent study by Stanford researchers, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, found that the physical act of walking itself, not the environment, improves creative thinking. Therefore, people walking indoors – on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall, or walking outdoors in the fresh air, produce twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down. Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was known for his walking meetings. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding meetings on foot. It doesn’t only improve our creative thinking but if you walk with someone else it also allows you to engage in more positive social behaviours.
This coming year use your knowledge of science to create a happier and healthier life for yourself and the people you love. “Happy New Year everyone” indeed!