With the New Year in sight, you may be starting to think about making resolutions. While entrepreneurs often think success will bring happiness, happiness expert Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage (2010: Crown Business) and Before Happiness (2013: Crown Business) says it’s actually the other way around.
Having a sunny outlook can help you make better resolutions and be more successful in achieving them. "When the brain is positive, [it] releases neurochemicals called success accelerants like dopamine and they turn on part of the brain that allow you to perceive more possibilities [and] process more information," says Achor. A pessimistic mindset, by contrast, causes the brain to feel threatened, closing it off to new opportunities.
"Your brain is three times more creative in a positive state," says Achor. While a positive mindset is crucial all year round, it's particularly important towards the end of the year, when we begin to reflect on the past and set our goals for the year ahead.
Before making your 2014 goals, follow these four tips to get into a positive state of mind.
1. Don't start at zero. When making resolutions, start by listing your accomplishments in the previous year. "The brain accelerates towards goals the closer it perceives success," says Achor. For the same reason that marathon runners tend to pick up speed at 26.1 miles, our brains release chemicals called success accelerants, that give us more energy as we perceive being closer to the finish line. Starting your resolution list with a blank sheet of paper means you lose the advantage of these success accelerants.
This strategy can be used on a daily basis throughout the rest of the year. Instead of making a list of all the things you have left to accomplish in the day, start by writing down all the things you've already accomplished and checking those off. When your brain sees the checkmarks, it releases these success accelerants, putting you in a positive mindset and allowing you to speed towards achieving the rest of the goals on the list.
2. Start your day with a positive email. Do you start off your day by scanning your inbox for the most urgent emails? How often are those urgent messages positive? To start your day in a positive mindset, Achor suggests writing a positive email to a friend, co-worker, client or even a stranger. Achor once sent an email to a former high-school teacher telling him how his class affected his life. By sending these positive emails, your brain is starting the day not with a threat (a negative email), but with a social connection, something Achor says is the greatest predictor of happiness.
3. Use positive language in goal-setting. While many of us make resolutions to stop a negative behavior such as smoking or eating junk food, Achor says we should instead focus on positive habits to replace the negative one you want to break. Rather than making a resolution to avoid the office vending machine, resolve to bring healthy snacks to work every day. By changing the language of your resolution from a negative to a positive, your brain doesn’t waste its resources dwelling on the negative habit you’re trying to avoid but instead uses its energy towards the new positive habit.
4. Focus on positive habits. Incorporate positive habits into your daily routine and experience the benefits of an optimistic outlook. Some positive habits that Achor says have proven effective include writing down three things you’re grateful for every day, meditating by paying attention to the movement of your breath, or journaling about a positive experience. When Achor asked a group of KPMG employees to choose one of these positive habits to do for two minutes over 21 consecutive days, he found significantly higher levels of job satisfaction, job effectiveness and lower stress levels.
Related: Attitude Is a Choice. Choose Wisely.