5 End of the Year Happiness Tips From a Harvard Professor

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In a recent performance for CBS News, American Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman read a piece called “Fugue” from her forthcoming poetry collection. At the end of the poem, she describes the pandemic with the following sentiments: “We have lost too much to lose / We lean against each other the way water bleeds into itself / This glass hour, paused, bursts like a loaded star belonging always to us / What more must we believe in?” Gorman’s words are refreshingly hopeful at the conclusion of two years that have been defined, in large part, by lives lost and normalcy reimagined. And as we count down the last days of 2021, “Fugue” is an invitation to find the silver linings (the “loaded stars”) in our own lives. So as 2021 comes to a close, we asked an expert for end-of-year happiness tips you don’t want to let pass you by—even if things feel really difficult for you right now.

Natalie Dattilo, PhD, licensed psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who focuses on positive psychology and behavior change, says that, when it comes to ringing in the New Year with some semblance of happiness, habit-forming behaviors give you the most satisfaction in the short and long run. “Happiness doesn’t just happen,” she says. “Routine and planned activation of the pleasure and reward centers of the brain is required to feel good and to preserve our ability to feel good in the future.”

“Happiness doesn’t just happen. Routine and planned activation of the pleasure and reward centers of the brain is required to feel good and to preserve our ability to feel good in the future.” Natalie Dattilo, PhD

To help you start a “routine” right now that will carry you into 2022, we asked Dr. Dattilo to share her top five happiness-boosting behaviors that you can tap into for future joy.

5 end of the year happiness tips from a Harvard professor of positive psychology

1. Repeat a positive affirmation to yourself

Even if you’re in the camp that believes positive affirmations feel saccharine, consider the research that shows they may be an effective means for increasing well-being and mitigating stress. “Take a few moments each day from now until the end of the year to practice positive affirmations, saying something like: ‘I am worth the time and effort it takes to tend to my needs and nurture my happiness,'” says Dr. Dattilo. Write it on a Post-it note, make it your phone’s home screen, or just repeat it to yourself when you have a spare moment.

2. Assess your values

The end of the year is also a great time to take stock of what you believe in, says Dr. Dattilo. You can ask yourself questions like:

“Knowing the answers to these will help guide goal-setting, decision-making, and help you prioritize your time, effort, and energy in the New Year,” adds Dr. Dattilo. Make sure you ask yourself these questions frequently—not just when another year is about to draw to a close.

3. Find your “why”

Autopilot is a useful state to be in when you’re checking off your to-do list at work or running errands, but Dr. Dattilo cautions against spending too much of your life feeling disconnected from the “why” behind what you’re doing. “It is likely you won’t always feel motivated to do the things you need or even want to do. Reminding yourself that you are worth the effort may help motivate you,” she says.

Research confirms that having a purpose increases health and longevity, so start asking yourself: “Why am I doing this?” And don’t stop.

4. Accept your life as it is right now, but stay in touch with how you want it to be

“While it’s important to have goals, happiness can remain elusive if we focus too much on wanting things to be different. Consider adopting a practice of radical self-acceptance, which is the active choosing and willingness to have things be the way they are, simply because they are,” says Dr. Dattilo. “Radical self-acceptance can be powerfully transformative and essential for authentic and long-lasting happiness.” From this place of radical self-acceptance, you’ll be able to make value-driven changes to your life without being hard on yourself.

5. Appreciate what you have

Practicing gratitude is one of the most research-backed ways to level up your happiness practice, so make sure you spend some time taking inventory on what parts of your life feel joyful and safe. “We know that a gratitude practice is associated with more positive emotions, lower anxiety, improved perspective taking, and better quality relationships. In addition, by having appreciation for the challenges and setbacks we’ve overcome, we develop resilience and confidence in our ability to handle challenges and setbacks in the future. This, in turn, encourages us to set goals and feel optimistic about our abilities to achieve them,” says Dr. Dattilo.

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