Want A Happy 2021? Science Says Do This!

With 2020 behind us, being happy is probably a popular resolution this New Year! Will losing some weight make you happy? Finding a better job? Moving to another state (or another planet, where there are no pandemics?) Science tells us it’s simpler than that and we can all do it.

Typical New Year’s resolutions include getting fitter and healthier, losing weight or running a 5K or even a marathon. They also include being more successful, smarter and a better person.

Of course, typical New Year’s resolutions barely make it out of January. With the massive failure rate, why do we still do it? Hope, of course, among other reasons. We all want a future better than the mistakes or challenges of our past.

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Few people understand this psychological and motivational reality like Richard Ryan. Ryan is the professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rochester and a recognized expert in the field of motivational research.

Ryan is even the co-founder of “self-determination theory,” along with fellow University of Rochester professor emeritus Edward Deci. More on that shortly.

Ryan knows that the odds are stacked against the resolution-makers. “The evidence shows that most of the time people aren’t successful at them,” he said.

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But Ryan thinks there is a better way, so don’t give up just yet. Also a clinical psychologist, he believes that any chance for an opportunity to reflect on our lives is a net positive. It might be New Year’s or it might be August; it’s still a good thing. “Whenever that happens, if it’s really a reflective change — something that you put your heart behind — that can be good for people.”

He thinks that if your goals involve giving to or helping others, they are likely to prove satisfying – and more likely to succeed. This is especially true in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, says Ryan.

“Think of how you can help,” says Ryan. “There’s a lot of distress out there: If we can set goals that aim to help others, those kinds of goals will, in turn, also add to our own well-being.”

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I mentioned self-determination theory earlier. SDT has become one of the most widely accepted ways of understanding human motivation in modern behavioral science. Deci and Ryan have developed and studied it for over 40 years. It begins with the idea that all humans are endowed with the innate, intrinsic tendency to act in ways that are healthful, effective and generally good.

Ryan, also a professor at Australian Catholic Univeristy’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, believes that when we willfully help other people, it satisfies three basic psychological needs spelled out by SDT. These are autonomy, relatedness and competence.

Within the boundaries of SDT, relatedness would refer to working with others and feeling connected to them. Competence refers to having a sense of accomplishment and feeling effective. Autonomy refers to intrinsic choice, or engaging in activities in which you find personal value and true volition and purpose.

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“If you want to make a New Year’s resolution that really makes you happy, think about the ways in which you can contribute to the world,” says Ryan. “All three of these basic needs are fulfilled. The research shows it’s not just good for the world but also really good for you.”

Doing good for others can be good for you, too. Fulfilling those resolutions may be as simple as choosing resolutions that are not about you. Why not give that a try in 2021? You might find that you’re happier than you have been in quite a few New Years!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Emma L. Bradshaw, Baljinder K. Sahdra, Joseph Ciarrochi, Philip D. Parker, Tamás Martos, Richard M. Ryan. A configural approach to aspirations: The social breadth of aspiration profiles predicts well-being over and above the intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations that comprise the profiles.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2020; DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000374

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