The smooth white stones scattered artfully around Priscilla Gorman Oehlschelaeger’s office make a statement. Adorned with a single word, such as “Family,” “Prosperity,” “Kindness” and “Happy,” each stone represents a commitment to change and positive growth.
“It’s something we’ve been doing at my church for more than 10 years,” says Priscilla, a creative coach and artist from Cincinnati. As each year draws to a close, Priscilla’s pastor leads the congregation in a guided meditation to help them think about what they want from the coming year. Then, each person chooses one word to represent that desire and writes it on their stone.
“It’s really valuable,” Priscilla says. “People don’t realize that one word can make such a difference, but focusing on that word throughout the year really guides how I carry myself in the way of who I am and how I want to be.”
Choosing a single word to focus on can offer a meaningful alternative to New Year’s resolutions; instead of looking at behavior you want to change, it reminds you of what behavior you want to see in yourself or focus on developing. The practice can be rooted in both spirituality and science, and its effects are cumulative.
“Having something simple, a single word, can make a big difference,” explains Jan Stanley, who has a master's degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and works with individuals and organizations to help them create lasting change.
“It’s not something you’re going to notice on a day-to-day basis, but when you look back at the end of the year, you’ll be surprised to find how much it has changed you.”
Jan points out that thanks to neuroplasticity, or our brain’s ability to reorganize itself by creating new neural connections, we can change the way we react to situations or change the way we look at the world. Having a single word to guide our thoughts for the year can be a powerful force for personal change.
“As we focus on that intention, and look for ways for that intention to materialize in our day-to-day lives, it takes us back to the old adage that ‘what fires together wires together.’
“Say you want to be more grateful; you set an intention and write it down; then, when you notice things that make you grateful, you get that dopamine burst and your brain’s reward system kicks in,” Jan says. Those feelings of rewards in your brain add to the joy of practicing gratitude, and make you more likely to continue looking for reasons to be grateful. Over time, it becomes a natural action (and reaction) for your brain.
Finding the right word
Choosing the word to guide you through the year is a personal decision that calls for careful consideration. A guided meditation, such as the one organized by Priscilla’s pastor, is one way to do that, and meditations designed for this purpose can be found online.
Jan also suggests using the ‘best possible future self’ exercise developed by University of Missouri–Columbia professor Laura King, Ph.D., which is designed to help you see yourself as you would like to be in five years. This can be done by writing down what you envision, or by closing your eyes and visualizing what it is you want to achieve and who you want to be.
“Think about what attributes it will take to become that person, and then think about what quality it is you’d most like to see flourish,” Jan says. “This isn’t about goal setting; goal setting focuses on what you want to do and what you’d like to accomplish.”
“This is about who you want to be.”
Make it a tradition
Turning this into an annual ritual has proven powerful for many people, including Priscilla. She says looking at her collection of stones reminds her of different stages in her life and of her own growth.
“I can look at them and remember why I chose that word and I can see what each word did for me through the years,” she says. “It has meant so much in my life; it’s really a lovely, life-changing tradition.”
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy magazine.