Ten days into the new year, we may already be experiencing the falling away of the best of our intentions to create new wholesome habits. We really mean to exercise more, meditate more, give to charity more; we may be disappointed that we still haven’t gotten the new traction we surely meant to have.
Creating new habits is a learnable skill.
Begin with what will stretch you; aligning with your core values will provide fuel over the long haul.
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.
– Howard Thurman
For instance, researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley suggest Six Habits of Happiness Worth Cultivating that will help you experience that aliveness:
- Pay Attention: Mindful people have stronger immune systems and are less likely to be hostile or anxious.
- Give Thanks: Regular expressions of gratitude promote optimism, better health, and greater satisfaction with life.
- Keep Friends Close: Social connections are key to happiness; make time for those closest to you.
- Drop Grudges: When we forgive those who have wronged us, we feel better about ourselves, experience more powerful emotions, and feel closer to others.
- Practice Kindness: Being kind to others makes us feel good. Altruistic acts light up the same pleasure centers in the brain as food and sex.
- Get Moving: Regular exercise increases self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress, and may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all.
Last week’s post, Running Makes Your Brain Smarter, is underpinned by a deep wish for health, well-being, full aliveness and wholeness. I’ll use running as the example in this exercise to create a reliable habit, but there are many, many other ways you might wish to move toward your intentions for health, well-being, whatever makes your heart sing.
- Identify a new habit you would like to cultivate that would support that larger aliveness. Researchers tell us that a habit is a behavior we don’t have to think about doing anymore. It’s now automatic, stored in our procedural memory. (I remember one morning I was debating whether to get out of bed and run in the cold foggy weather and while I was debating my body got itself up, got dressed and went out the door on its own.)
- Create a sequence of steps – a routine – that would begin to establish that habit: running the same time every day or the same route every other day or wearing certain clothes that signal “We’re getting ready to run now.” (Different example, but when I was writing the book, eating my “writing” breakfast and wearing my “writing” clothes and sitting at my “writing” desk helped prime my brain to write as soon as I settled in.)
- Then identify something you could do in 30 seconds that would prime your brain to do the new sequence of behavior. (Reaching for my running shoes cues my body-brain to complete the sequence.) Do that first 30 seconds’ worth over and over until it becomes an automatic habit, and the rest of the sequence will begin to follow.
- Create a cue to remind yourself to do that first 30 seconds worth. (If I leave my running shoes out where I’ll trip over them first thing in the morning, I’ve created a visual cue to start the whole sequence.)
- Create a way to hold yourself accountable. Shifting gears slightly, my friend Marianne and I have walked the ridge trail behind my house nearly every Tuesday morning for 12 years. In last week’s post I suggested walking or running with someone to boost your perseverance by creating that accountability (let alone deepen the friendship.) Even checking in with someone who knows and cares about your health and growth provides a tremendous boost in your confidence in your competence and helps you move from intention to action.
- As you do your new behavior, see yourself doing the new behavior, take in the good, the benefit of the new behavior, and see yourself as someone who is creating new habits. You’re creating a relationship with yourself as someone who can set an intention and achieve it, essential to your perseverance.
- As you see the new habit settling into your implicit (unconscious) memory, let yourself have the reward of “good job!” However you want to say that to yourself. You’ll be activating the release of dopamine in your brain, the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward, which reinforces the “doing” that gives us that pleasure and reward again and again.
Even creating new habits can become a rewarding, life-changing habit. My newest habit is to get up early enough when creating these posts to see the sun rise. Wow, does that make my heart sing!