It’s not all about the resolutions. This New Year, here’s why you should practise the simple art of giving thanks instead.
“Start a savings plan.”
Sound familiar? Welcome to the New Year. Traditionally, the start of the year is a time for self-improvement and personal planning. Collectively, we get a lot more optimistic and goal-oriented during this period, telling ourselves that all our bad habits belong in the past, and in the future, we’ll basically be happy, healthy Gwyneth Paltrow clones who practise good habits like snacking on raw almonds, doing yoga and meditating.
But how many of us have embarked on a crusade of personal improvement only to lapse into our old ways two months or, if we’re really good, six months down the road? Before we know it, we’re making the same old resolutions next year, and restarting the cycle all over again. So why not try something different this year? Even as cracking open a new calendar signals a fresh start, it could also be an opportunity for a different kind of reflection. Instead of aiming high and working out all the things you want to achieve in the next 365 days, here’s why the first step should be taking stock and being grateful.
Time to give thanks
According to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the phenomenon of making New Year’s resolutions can be explained by something they call the “fresh start effect”. Simply, it means that certain landmark dates – like New Year’s Day, or even a birthday or anniversary – create “new mental accounting periods” that can help motivate aspirational behaviour by encouraging people to take a big-picture view of their lives. When people do this, argue the researchers, they tend to relegate unwanted behaviours to the past and project positive self-images of themselves in the future.
For example, a 25th birthday might convince you that it’s time to party less and work out more. Similarly, the start of the New Year can seem like a fitting occasion to purge unhealthy habits from your lifestyle. But while it’s healthy to have goals and aspirations, the focus on changing what’s bad about ourselves can have a negative impact. This is especially so when our resolutions result in failure – as, according to a survey of over 3,000 people conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman, 88 percent of them are doomed to end.
Instead of setting ourselves up for future misery, a surer way to present happiness is a simple one – gratitude. According to Ralitza Peeva, a Wellness, Leadership and Life Coach at COMO Shambhala Urban Escape Singapore, “When we choose to look at what we already have, we see the million hidden blessings in our lives. When we focus on them, we notice a lot more positives surrounding our days.”
Indeed, gratitude has become consistently associated with greater happiness and well-being in the field of positive psychology research. “Experiencing gratitude, thankfulness, and appreciation tends to foster positive feelings, which contribute to one’s overall sense of well-being,” writes Dr Randy Sansone, professor of Psychiatry and Internal Medicine at Wright State University, Ohio1. “Therefore, gratitude appears to be one component, among many components, that contributes to an individual’s well-being.”
The right reason to change
In the US, people make a holiday out of gratefulness by celebrating Thanksgiving Day each year. A holiday that has its roots in the Pilgrim era of US history, Thanksgiving is, as its name suggests, a day for giving thanks for all the blessings of the harvest and of the preceding year. Here in Singapore, we don’t get a similar public holiday, but there’s another good reason why we should hack our New Year’s and turn it into a period of gratitude. That’s because, on top of making us happy, gratitude can also be an excellent starting point for positive change.
“We can be grateful for a lot of things and yet still desire to improve our skills, learn new ideas, and be more present and grounded individuals,” says Ralitza, who notes that experiencing satisfaction with your lot in life is not the same as getting complacent. “When we are complacent, we tend to stay in our own bubble, righteous and arrogant, and we do not share our energy and our experiences with anyone,” she adds. “Being grateful and satisfied allows us to see what we are blessed with. When we are grateful for what we have, we actually have more energy and inner wisdom. We aspire to give and share what we have.”
In fact, gratefulness can be a source of energy – literally. In one study published by the American Psychological Association, the moodboosting benefits of gratitude was found to have other surprising side effects, including helping you achieve your fitness goals. In the study, university students were split into two groups – one was asked to keep a weekly journal of experiences that they were grateful for, and the other was asked to take note of hassles, irritants and things that annoyed them. Not only did those in the “gratitude group” report a more optimistic outlook on their lives as a whole, they also had fewer physical complaints and even spent significantly more time exercising than the “hassles group”.
After all, if you focus too much on changing a bad habit, you are starting from a place of self-judgment, rather than self-care. Allowing yourself to be grateful and happy with your life gives you the mental freedom to make better choices for yourself on a day-to-day basis, and encourages you to choose long-term goals that are more aligned with things that truly matter to you – your core beliefs and principles.
As Ralitza says: “There is a beautiful balance between being grateful about where we are today and having the desire to deepen our knowledge, wisdom, and abilities. Surprisingly, to improve ourselves often means to learn how to do less rather than more, and how to enjoy the moments rather than spend our lives in constant dissatisfaction and needing more.”
HOW TO BE GRATEFUL… A STARTER KIT
Counting your blessings is as easy as 1, 2, 3.
1 START SMALL
Ralitza advocates starting with small steps, and adding a step every day: “We can start by smiling and saying, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ – to the stranger who holds the elevator door open for you, for example. It may sound simple, but notice how these small actions change our own mood.”
2 LOOK OUT FOR THE LITTLE THINGS
“Often, the most precious things are those that are not easily described as ‘aims and goals’. A good meal with a close friend, a beautiful sunset – these might be things that we already have in our daily lives but we take them for granted. Yet these are the moments that make us happy. And so when we focus on what we have, we discover how good our lives actually are,” says Ralitza.
3 KEEP A GRATITUDE JOURNAL
“Even when we think there is nothing to be grateful for in our lives, we can challenge ourselves to start,” encourages Ralitza. Begin with general blessings that millions of other people don’t have – like hot meals every day. “By adding to our list every day, soon we will see how many reasons we have to be grateful.”