Q: I want to start the new year off on a great foot. Any recommendations?
After a busy and perhaps (overly) indulgent holiday season, radical change might feel like the answer. Before you embark on a period of punishing deprivation, consider a former patient of mine who lost more than 10 pounds after going on a green-juice diet for the first two weeks of January. She was thrilled about the weight loss but ravenously hungry and in a terrible mood the entire time. A few weeks later, she had regained all the weight … and then some. Cast in a broader framework, it’s a metaphor for what so many of us experience when we try to make a long-term change. In the short term, it’s easy. In the long term, not so much.
Crash diets aside, how can you make behavioral changes that help you start the year on the right track and that are also sustainable? Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Michael Cohn explored this question by following a group that had participated in a short-term study on the benefits of meditation. In the initial seven-week study, regular meditation was shown to increase feelings of love, hope, gratitude, and sense of purpose for pretty much everyone. Then Cohn and Fredrickson followed up 15 months later. A number of participants continued to meditate and reported feeling better as a result, but others had stopped. What made the difference? According to their findings, those who enjoyed meditating early on in the study were more likely to be meditating one year later. The findings suggest that the trick to long-term behavior change is that you must connect with it. For anything to stick, there must be interest in the first place. So instead of fixing a flaw, consider doing more of something that comes naturally and that you enjoy. If you love art, make a resolution to visit a gallery or museum once a week. If you like reading, join a book club.
Whatever change you want to make or skill you hope to master, begin with something that feels right. Enthusiasm is the gatekeeper of endurance.
Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positivepercription.com.
A version of this story appeared in the Holiday 2018 issue of Marie Claire.
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