Look to your strengths from the previous year to guide you forward.
To those of you who are optimists, like us, who push yourselves to exhaustion to be better every day and are way too hard on yourselves when you don’t hit your own irrationally high standards, we have some advice for you: Stop it.
This time, we are approaching end-of-year goal setting in a new way. The research in Shawn’s book The Happiness Advantage shows that we have our thinking backward when we assume that success will lead to happiness when, in truth, having a positive mindset is the greatest predictor of our sustained success. Goals are important, and you may have lots of them, but the best way to achieve them is to start with positivity. So, the key to next year is focusing on the good things in this year.
Our three resolutions for optimists are based on new positive psychology research.
Resolution No. 1: Be the same in the new year as you were last year.
Why does a resolution have to force you to be different? Instead of striving to do something you’ve never done before, like learn Spanish or write a novel, repeat patterns that worked well for you this year. In Before Happiness, Shawn outlines research that shows only two things motivate a brain: seeing that the finish line is close and seeing progress. So, the list you should make for Jan. 1 is not a list of “never-dones,” but rather a list of “dones”—areas you have seen progress in your life that you want to build upon.
Think back over the past year. What led to your best moments? Was it taking time to have a date night? Was it saving money so you could vacation in wine country? Whatever it was, resolve to do it again. In research, some say that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. We don’t fully agree with that because it ignores the potential for big change. In general, the only way big change can occur is by repeating a pattern of positive behavior that leads to success. So, instead of starting something new, do even more of what’s already been working for you. What’s the favorite part of who you were this year? Keep it going!
Resolution No. 2: For one year, don’t repeat a previous resolution.
If starting a yoga practice has been on your list for three years and you still haven’t done it, it’s time to take it off your list. You are better off showing your brain progress rather than continually reminding it of failure. This goes along perfectly with the character strengths research that shows you are better off capitalizing on one of your strengths rather than spending all your time on fixing the weaknesses. When you beat yourself up mentally for your weak areas, you waste mental resources that could be better used on your strengths.
Resolution No. 3: Stop saying how happy you will be when you hit this goal.
There are admittedly a few hours of anticipatory joy when you make your resolutions for the next year, when you think about how amazing things will be. But that is often quickly replaced by reality. It is much better to peg your happiness to positive things in the past and good things in the present. This is scary for optimists like us who love thinking about the future and talking about new plans. We found as a couple we’d spend time on our vacation dreaming about future vacations, and in doing so, our brains were not in the present. So instead, resolve to be happy today. Do not worry that this will make you content to not grow in the next year.
The Happiness Advantage research is clear: Create happiness and every aspect of your life improves in the future. That’s incredible! Moreover, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, that is an excellent goal. But you will not necessarily be happier, even if you think you will. We bet today alone you met several skinny people who are quite unhappy. Getting a promotion or hitting a sales target are good goals, but you will not necessarily be happier when you attain them. The gain in happiness from money is negligible. There is no known correlation between the number of books you read, how many languages you speak, whether or not you go skydiving and happiness.
So many of the things that fill up your resolutions will not make this a happier year. Things that scientifically will make you happier? Being grateful daily for the past and present. Journaling about positive experiences. Making someone else’s year better through an act of kindness. Being resolved to be happy and kind today, focusing on your strengths and giving yourself a break are the keys to your best year ever.
Listen to our podcast: The Happiness Advantage With Shawn Achor
Read more: Which Kind of Goal-Setter Are You?
SHAWN ACHOR is best-selling author of the The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Shawn’s TED Talk is one of the most popular ever, with over 5 million views, and his PBS program has been seen by millions. His latest book is called Big Potential. Learn more about Shawn at Goodthinkinc.com.
MICHELLE GIELAN is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success and the author of Broadcasting Happiness. Formerly a national news anchor for CBS News, Michelle holds a masters of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more at Goodthinkinc.com.