As a method for putting 2020 behind me and focusing on a hopeful 2021, I engaged in some forward thinking (rather unusual for me) and wrote an op-ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper to be published TODAY! Below, I’ve pasted the beginning of the article, along with a link to the whole darn thing in the Missoulian. If you feel so moved, please share and like this. . . and I hope you experience the return of happiness in 2021.
The Return of Happiness: Your 2021 Guide
Usually a great source of snarky humor, the Urban Dictionary lists its top definition for 2020 as, “The worst year ever.” Sadly, even the Urban Dictionary couldn’t find creative inspiration from the horrors of 2020. Goodbye, 2020; you will not be missed.
As we approach the end of 2020, many of us are looking forward–like never before in the history of time–to turning that calendar to a new page and a new year. Readers of the Washington Post were recently surveyed and wrote, 2020 has been exhausting, relentless, and heartbreaking. Let’s put 2020 behind us and never look back (other than to remind ourselves of mistakes we shouldn’t make again).
In honor of turning the calendar to 2021, I’m working on an Op-Ed piece titled “The Return to Happiness.” The point of the piece is to acknowledge how good it is to move on, but also discuss the nature of New Year’s resolutions and how to make resolutions that have a reasonable chance of being accomplished. In the end, I’ll be making a pitch for everyone to sign up for my University of Montana course “The Art & Science of Happiness.” Well, not everyone, but anyone who wants to have a cool online “university” experience that provides an opportunity to test out the best, evidence-based, approaches to happiness on planet earth.
The course starts in January, and, for the first time ever, will be offered to “community” participants as a non-credit experience. This means EVERYONE can sign up. The catch is that it costs $150. But if you do the math, that’s only $10/week or about $3.50 an hour to discuss, learn, experiment with, and establish new happiness habits for 2021.
Here’s a description of the course:
Over the past 20 years, research on happiness has flourished. Due to the natural interest that most Americans have for happiness, research findings (and unfounded rumors) have been distributed worldwide. Every day, happiness is promoted via online blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, Twitter posts, Instagram videos, TikTok, and through many other media and social media venues. Ironically, instead of increases in national happiness, most epidemiological research indicates that all across the U.S., children, adolescents, adults, and seniors are experiencing less happiness, more depression, and higher suicide rates. To help sort out scientific reality from unsubstantiated rumors, in this course, we will describe, discuss, and experience the art and science of happiness. We will define happiness, read a popular happiness book, examine scientific research studies, try out research experiments in class, engage in extended happiness lab assignments, and use published instruments to measure our own happiness and well-being. Overall, we will focus on how happiness and well-being are manifest in the physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, spiritual/cultural, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of our lives.
Other things to know: If you take the course as a community, non-credit, participant, you won’t take the quizzes, or get graded, and assignments will be optional. However, you will be asked to participate in small group lab sessions designed to give you (and others) a chance to talk and listen to each other as you experience and experiment with specific happiness assignments.
This year, for the first time in recorded history, my New Year’s resolutions are experiencing a well-earned deferral.
I should note that me deferring my New Year’s resolutions has nothing to do with procrastination, bone spurs, sexual indiscretions in the oval office, impeachment, or my inability to construct a sentence that doesn’t include irreverent sarcasm. Instead, the deferral is about my recent epiphany: Making resolutions during the first week of January is an act of great folly!
I’d explain the rationale underlying my epiphany, but like many procrastination rationalizations, I’m still working on it. Actually, that’s not true—I’ve already worked out the rationale—but I’m still working on a full-length article describing why it’s pure foolishness to set aspirational goals on New Year’s Day, along with how and when you should set your goals if you want to be successful. This particular blog post (the one you’re reading now) flows from my sneaky effort to get your anticipation building.
Think about this: I’m giving you permission to wait on your New Year’s resolutions. You should make no resolutions until you’ve read the full-length article. Said differently, I’m giving you permission to procrastinate! Now can you feel the anticipation building?
By the way, if you happen to have advice on where to submit said article, please immediately share your ideas with me. Don’t wait on that. Given that my success in submitting snarky op-ed pieces is small and shrinking like a 21st century glacier, I need your help now.
As a partial spoiler, I’d like to share three things.
I’m seriously contemplating punctuality as one of my New Year’s resolutions.
The working title of my upcoming New Year’s masterpiece on goal-setting is: Don’t Wait: Why You Should Start Rethinking Your New Year’s Resolutions Right Now
The opening paragraph of the draft of my article starts like this:
There’s an old Tom Cheney New Yorker cartoon that features a guy in a cap standing on a street corner next to a paper shredding machine. There’s a sign leaning on his shredder that reads,
New Year’s Resolutions
That’s enough for now.
Like I said, just wait, let the anticipation build, and while you’re waiting—and procrastinating—be sure to take time to feel good about the waiting.
In case you forgot or never knew, 1990 to 2000 was championed as the decade of the brain. You would think one decade would be enough, but judging by how much of a darling neuroscience is in the media, it looks like the brain will be hogging the whole 21st century too. And so in celebration of our perpetually “New Brain Science,” I’m offering six neuroscience-based New Year’s resolutions for 2016
1. For years, the Dali Lama has been advising everyone to develop a “Loving Kindness” meditation practice. Even if his advice doesn’t change the world, having a consistent loving kindness meditation practice can change your brain. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a region in the brain called the insular cortex, an area broadly linked to self-control and good judgment. This makes 2016 a good time to start meditating. We could all use a little more self-control and good judgment.
2. You should sit down for this one. Or stand up. And then sit down again. This is because scientific research supports brain-body connections. Exercise facilitates everything from sleep to sex. If you want a sharper brain for 2016, then stand-up and get walking or stretching or running or lifting or dancing your way to clearer thinking.
3. Last year might have been the year of the gut. There’s been plenty of talk about the “gut” being our second brain. Of course, this isn’t about growing your gut or striving for a dad-bod. It’s all about digestive health. The best way to get your second brain to support your mental health is to feed it whole, fresh foods, probiotics, and fermented foods (like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchee), while avoiding the evils of eating highly processed white sugar/white flour.
4. Exercise is great and good sex may be better, but loving and gentle touch is the bomb. Make 2016 the year—not only for consensual hugs and kisses—but also for shoulder and neck and foot massages. You can even put brushing each other’s hair on your “this-just-might-improve-my-mental-health” to-do list.
5. In 2015 sleep research was hot. It’s more obvious than ever that sleep deprivation is generally bad for your brain; it contributes to clinical depression, suicide, accidents, and illness. Finding a way to sleep well in 2016 means turning off your screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime, cutting out the caffeine after 2pm, and establishing a steady personal and family sleep routine. Sleep is the new black.
6. For those of us in the helping professions, the biggest neuroscience news is all about what psychotherapists call empathic listening. Turns out, listening in an effort to understand others grows the brain in ways similar to mindfulness meditation. That means the more you practice listening with empathy, the more you’ll grow that all-important insular cortex . . . and the more you grow your insular cortex, the less likely you are to engage in violent behaviors that threaten the planet. So if you want a more peaceful planet, put empathic listening on your New Year’s resolution list.
There’s one big principle that underlies all of the new brain science: Whatever behaviors you rehearse, practice, or repeat, are likely to strengthen your skills and grow your brain in those particular regions. What this means is that if your goal is to be a couch potato for 2016, you should spend lots of time couch potatoing so you can develop mad skills in that area, with a neurological net to match. On the other hand, if you want a healthy brain and body and awesome friendships and romance in your life, you should engage in the activities listed above—especially the mindfulness meditation and empathic listening—and you’ll grow a brain and skills that just might bring health, love, and peace in 2016.
Note: I submitted this awesome resolution list to a couple newspapers just before the New Year, but only got rejections. And so I decided to submit it to myself and, voila!, it got published right here on my very own blog (smiley face). Please share and pass it on so that all the newspaper editors who keep rejecting my work start feeling the deep regret they deserve.
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