You probably don’t need research to tell you we’re living in a stressful time. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association proves that point. People are worried—about politics, money, work, crime and national divisiveness.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s something each of us can do about it.
Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist with the UNC School of Medicine, says you can be happier the the new year by following five steps.
You can think of them as New Year’s resolutions. But these aren’t your typical carb-cutting, fitness-focused, be-a-better-this-or-that resolutions. These are all about your mental health.
“As you approach the new year, think of things that can enhance your self-esteem, help you feel better, and help you feel engaged in different ways,” she says. “All these will help you make the new year a happier one.”
1. Set boundaries and say “no” more often.
We all know life can get busy. The kids need you, your partner needs you, projects at work may seem never-ending—the list goes on. But try to remember, while everything can feel like a priority, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Setting boundaries with others to allow more time for yourself is OK—you don’t have to feel guilty about it.
Practice saying “no” to things you don’t want to do or can’t make time for; this is particularly relevant around the holidays when family and friends make lots of requests of you.
Trying to please everyone all the time will most likely make you miserable. To be happier in the new year, try prioritizing things that are important to you and the most important people in your life. Be accountable to those things, and ditch the stuff you thought of as obligations that really aren’t mandatory. It will take some thought to figure out your priorities, but it’s well worth the time.
On the surface, this may appear to be a common New Year’s resolution. But what makes it different this year is the reasoning behind it.
You don’t need to hold yourself to impossible standards. And you don’t need to exercise because you aren’t beautiful enough. Rather, physical exercise is important for the ways it makes you feel “above the neck”—that is, it’s important for your brain.
Exercise decreases stress and anxiety and, as a bonus, improves heart health. Moving is a great way to get your brain to release endorphins, which improve your mood.
And yes, getting a little exercise can make you feel better in your own skin. It’s true that people who feel more fit often have better self-esteem.
There are no rules about what exercise you have to do. You can play basketball at the gym, sign up for a yoga class or walk your dog more. Figure out what works for you, because putting some exercise into your life is a great way to make sure you’re going into the new year feeling good about yourself.
3. Practice mindfulness.
The word is everywhere: mindfulness. What does it really mean?
It’s simple. Mindfulness means being consciously aware of how you approach your life. It means slowing down and tuning into your thought process.
For example, mindfulness applied to eating means instead of shoveling popcorn into your mouth by the handful while your eyes glaze over in the glow of your favorite TV show, eating the popcorn slowly and with attention. Notice the texture, the flavor. You avoid guilt by slowing down and enjoying your food.
The same principle applies to your daily life. Instead of turning on autopilot and mindlessly going through your routine, slow down and take notice. Maybe there’s snow on the ground. Maybe the leaves on the trees are especially radiant. This is an amazing world. Notice it. It can make you happier if you do.
Of course, there are more formal ways to practice mindfulness. For some people, this can be a meditation practice; for other people, it can be a spiritual practice. Whatever your approach, be present in the moment.
4. Be kind to yourself and others.
We’re living in a time when a lot of toxicity and hostility are flying around. We may underestimate how difficult this environment can be for us. We don’t have to be on the receiving end to feel stressed out by it. Simply observing hostility can make us want to hang our heads.
That’s why now is a great time for a little kindness.
In the new year, try to reach out and be kind to others; it could motivate them to be kind in return. And just as witnessing hostility makes us feel bad, witnessing kindness makes us feel good.
And kindness doesn’t have to just apply to others. Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself, too.
5. Try something new.
We all need some fun and excitement in our lives. The same old routine can get monotonous and boring. Counter that with a little variety.
It doesn’t have to be expensive. Doing something silly or something you think would be fun that you haven’t tried before can add a layer of lightness and wonder to your life. Have a dance party with your kids in the kitchen. Sign up for a pottery class. Take your spouse or a friend to hear live music.
Make sure to schedule fun things on your calendar, like family trips or an afternoon hike. It’s amazing what having things to look forward to can do for your mood.
If you feel your stress level has become too high to manage, or it’s interfering with your relationships or performance at work, talk to your doctor or find one near you.