While being healthy and happy are two common new year’s resolutions, a University of Scranton study of the most popular resolutions for this year also suggests many are looking forward to improving relationships.
Here, The National looks at some psychology and science-backed hacks to hit all three.
Sunny side up
Resolution: Be healthier
Time required: Two minutes
World-renowned neuroscientist, host of the popular Huberman Lab podcast and professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr Andrew Huberman recommends this two-minute change ad nauseam: getting sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning.
“It is perhaps the most important thing any and all of us should do in order to promote metabolic well-being, positive functioning of your hormone system and get your mental health steering in the right direction,” says Huberman in his podcast on maximising productivity, as well as physical and mental health.
“Get outdoors, ideally with no sunglasses if you can do this safely, even if it’s cloudy. More photons are coming through that cloud cover than from a very bright indoor bulb. Do this for at least two minutes, 10 minutes would be better, 30 minutes would be fantastic — depending on the brightness of the environment.”
The science: Getting outside for even a short walk ensures your eye neurons — melanopsin-expressing, intrinsically photosensitive ganglion cells — receive adequate stimulation. These neurons convey to the brain that it’s time to be alert. This sets in motion a number of biological cascades in every cell and organ, from the liver and gut to the heart and brain.
“Early in the day, we experience a natural and healthy bump in cortisol levels. Cortisol comes from the amygdala and promotes wakefulness and a healthy immune system,” Huberman explains.
“We typically hear that stress and cortisol disrupt the immune system, but not the short little pulse you get each morning,” he says. "This pulse is going to happen once every 24 hours, no matter what, but you get to time it by choosing when you view sunlight or bright light of another kind first thing in the morning. And you want that cortisol pushed early."
Best of all, it costs nothing and requires between two and 10 minutes a day.
Do it write
Resolution: Be happier
Time required: 15 minutes
Darius Foroux, author of international bestsellers Think Straight and Do It Today, calls procrastination the number one challenge to self-improvement and happiness in the modern world. “We have so many distractions and obligations that it’s hard to get anything done,” he tells The National.
But he also cautions against blanket advice. “Most advice is not relevant to individual struggles," he says.
"I recommend taking the time to understand what your problem is. Without awareness of personal challenges, we can’t solve them. So that’s where it must start."
Foroux also recommends the deceptively simple act of journaling.
“Simply sit down with a pen and a notebook and start asking yourself: 'What do I want? Why am I struggling? When do I usually feel good? When do I usually feel bad?'" he says. "When you become aware of what’s good and bad for you, you can focus on the good and eliminate the bad.
"If you want to improve your life and be happier, you must start by knowing yourself. Answering fundamental questions about what true happiness means to you makes what you should be working towards a lot more clear and achievable.
The science: Several studies over the past 20 years have shown that journaling can help memory and immunity, plus lung and liver function; promote psychological well-being; improve the way we speak; and even help us land jobs faster and score better marks at school. Meanwhile, a 2006 study found writing meaningfully for as little as 15 minutes is as effective as cognitive-behavioural therapy and reduces the risk of depression.
Feels like love
Resolution: Improve relationships
Time required: Three minutes
Nicola Beer, a British relationship coach living in Dubai, pinpoints one of the things most people get wrong in relationships at one point or another: becoming stuck in a cycle of negativity and complaining, which has a compounding effect and creates resentment as time goes on.
Beer offers a DIY solution that takes three minutes a day.
“Create a daily morning or evening routine where you spend just three minutes thinking about what you’re grateful for in the relationship, what’s going well and, most importantly, why it’s important for you to even have a good relationship [with a particular person] in the first place," Beer tells The National.
“Thinking about why you want what you do will also help you correct your own patterns. Knowing that it’s important for you to show your kids love or have a strong relationship with the family will make you prioritise those in your life and let the insignificant things slide."
The science: To put it simply, connecting gratitude dots every day helps the brain build our positivity muscle and reinforce the beliefs retained in our reticular activating system, commonly known as RAS. It is that part of the brain that makes our minds scan for more evidence on whatever we already believe and focus on, Beer explains.
If you start focusing on what you’re grateful for instead of what makes you angry, the RAS will help you see your relationships more positively, Beer says.
“It doesn’t even have to be about your partner; it can be about anything in life you’re inclined to see negatively,” Beer adds.
So there you have it: 20 minutes a day could be all you need to significantly change the quality of your life, your mental healthand your relationship with yourself and others.