A New Year, a New You

two feet with tennis shoes on climbing up stairsEvery January, gyms are crowded with people resolved to start working out and get in shape. Lines form around the treadmills as determined new gym members push themselves hard, trying to lose weight. But every year, it seems the same thing happens: by mid-February, the crowds have dissipated and the gym is as empty as it was in November.

Why is it so difficult to keep our health resolutions? Many of us blame ourselves-seeing yet another example of our lack of self-control and discipline.  But what if the resolutions themselves are the problem? For one thing, we often set very large goals for ourselves.  Even more defeating, the goals are usually short-sighted.  Sure, we want to lose 10 pounds, but what is the real goal underneath?  Isn't it really so we can feel happier with ourselves and enjoy greater all around wellbeing?  

So why not address that underlying goal directly? Increasing your happiness and wellbeing isn't about fixing what's "wrong" with you. When you approach the process with that mindset, you are immediately activating emotions like guilt and shame, which aren't very encouraging! Rather than setting unrealistic goals, begin by simply paying attention each moment with an open mind. What makes you feel happier and more balanced?  What puts you off balance?  

Here are three simple things you can do this year to make a positive difference in your life:

Pay more attention every day

man brushing teeth Our society encourages us to ignore painful feelings and seek comfort in material items, including food. We become conditioned to this way of life, avoiding experiencing what is happening right now. How often have you eaten a meal when you are upset and not tasted a bite? And then wanted more?  Rather than getting caught in this unhealthy cycle, you can choose instead to pay attention to the present moment, accept the stress or sadness as it is, and see if you can let it go. Mindfulness is one practice that can help you do that.

Mindfulness is as simple as bringing a fresh sense of curiosity to everyday activities, even the painful moments. You can practice by choosing an easy activity, like brushing your teeth, and trying to remain mindful and open to the experience as you do it. What do you taste, feel, and hear? Are you relaxed or rigid? Don't try to change anything-just pay attention, and keep yourself open to the experience as it occurs.

Extend this mindful practice to other areas of your life, and when you realize you've become wrapped up in fantasy or are trying to escape a painful feeling, take a deep breath and return your attention to the present moment. Drop your expectations for what should happen, and accept what is happening.

Be kind to yourself

young man laughing with friendsDon't forget why you want to improve your wellbeing in the first place: because you love yourself! It's easy to forget this central motivator when we become wrapped up in the process of trying to make our lives happier and healthier.

Remind yourself every day of your own good qualities: your quirky sense of humor, the generosity you feel toward your friends, or your tendency to look on the bright side of situations. A researcher at the University of Texas who has studied self-compassion for years found that it leads naturally to healthier life choices and less depression. Making change in your life is a difficult process, and you have to be willing to begin again and again. Cultivating a sense of friendliness and gentleness with yourself will make it easier each time you need to dust off and try again.

Connect with others

While our relationship with ourselves is important, we can't forget to cultivate good relationships with the people around us, too. Studies have shown that strong social networks and good relationships with others can influence our physical health by lowering blood pressure, decreasing depression, and boosting our immune systems. By interacting with others every day-from asking a coworker how her day has been to calling up a good friend on the telephone-we encourage good qualities in ourselves, such as tolerance, patience, and love.

Connecting with others can be as simple as volunteering at a local nonprofit, joining a group, or taking a walk with your pet through the park. You don't have to be the life of the party - you can just be willing to be open to the experience of sharing time with someone.

So this year, try these three practices and see what unfolds. Chances are you will be making healthier choices before you know it, without even thinking about it.