What are you dreaming of for the new year? Did you make a resolution, set an intention, choose a word?

At the beginning of every year, I like to choose one word to focus my attention for the year. This year, my word is “Foundation.”

No matter how you set your intentions, January is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings for many people. Do you want to learn how to be more confident, more present, or more creative? Perhaps you want to take better care of yourself. Whatever it is, if you’re like most people, I’m guessing that there’s probably some new habit that you’d like to develop this year.

If that’s right, I invite you to read on and discover a practice that may be the easiest, most fun and most effective way to build new habits there is.

And, that’s not just some pie in the sky assertion. After you read this, I invite you to check out neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness, in which he describes this practice in much greater detail and lays out all the research.

Let’s start with defining habits. A habit is any behavior that you’ve performed so many times, it has become automatic. While you might think about habits as things you do, like flossing your teeth or putting on a seatbelt, the habits that I’m most interested in are emotional strengths such as assertiveness or curiosity or courage.

Most of us aren’t taught how we form habits or how we can change them, and because of that, developing new habits can feel daunting. I’m happy to tell you that, in fact, developing new habits and strengths can be simple.

Instead of working super hard to fight against old behaviors, it can be much more useful to just take in the good.

What do I mean by “taking in the good?”

In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson writes that the most effective path to developing emotional habits or strengths such as gratitude, presence, and confidence is to notice when you’re already engaged in these habits and then to feel how you feel in your body. He calls this process “taking in the good.”

With repeated, intense, and prolonged mental focus on what’s working, you grow new synapses and change how your DNA functions so that you literally experience more of what works. For example, by noticing when you feel confident, you strengthen your ability to feel confident. When you notice yourself feeling focused, you increase your ability to focus. When you allow yourself to feel really good when you practice self-care (even if it’s just for five minutes), you increase the likelihood that you’ll practice self-care again soon.

As human beings, we too often focus on what we don’t want to do or to feel.

Unfortunately, focusing on what you don’t want makes it harder to develop the habits you do want. For example, trying to figure out how to be “not stressed” can stress you out, even more.

The brain can’t think in negatives. Don’t think of a pink elephant. You can’t do it, right? Every time you think about what you don’t want, your focus goes to the negative, and you’re more likely to replicate that. Instead, when you think about what you do want, you send your energy in that new, more generative direction.

So, why is it so easy to focus on what doesn’t work?

In his book, Hanson explains that, over hundreds of millions of years, the human brain was programmed to focus on fear, danger, and the negative. This was for a good reason.

Back when we were hunters and gatherers, we could have made one of two bad decisions: We could have thought there was a tiger in the bush when there really wasn’t—and risk unnecessary fear. Or, we could have thought there was no tiger when there actually was—and risk certain death. We’re descendants of the cavemen and women who didn’t get curious at the shaking bush. The human brain was programmed to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities.

At the risk of mixing animal-related metaphors, let’s look at exotic animal trainers.

The folks who teach dolphins to jump through hoops and monkeys to ride skateboards know that giving positive feedback is the key to increasing motivation. Animal trainers have a long journey with any new creature, and punishing the animal will rarely take them where they want to go. Their secret to success is to praise each tiny step toward the destination.

Celebration triggers endorphins and gives you a natural high, which makes you feel more connected, creative, and confident. Your feelings of success can propel you forward.

So, what are the steps to taking in the good and building new habits?

Your first step to cultivating new habits or strengths is to choose one or two to focus on.

Rather than focusing on the habit you want to let go of, focus on the habit you want to cultivate. Keep in mind that your problem requires a matched solution. For example, if you struggle with the state in the left column, consider focusing on the habit or strength in the right column—

• Exhaustion… Energy
• Stagnation… Movement
• Anxiety… Ease
• Fear… Courage
• Shame… Self-Compassion
• Resistance… Curiosity
• Withdrawal… Engagement
• Scarcity… Gratitude
• Frustration… Fulfillment
• Stuckness… Forward Movement
• Drivenness… Pleasure
• Rejection… Belonging
• Isolation… Connection
• Grief… Love

Your next step is to notice moments in which you experience the habit or strength you desire.

To develop the habits and strengths we desire—such as trust, humor, and ease—we need to notice when we experience these positive states. Your next task is to, therefore, track what works, like a hunter tracks down their prey.

Often, we’re already engaging in the actions or experiencing the states that we want to make habitual, but we’re not paying attention. By paying attention to when we are acting and feeling the ways we want, we strengthen our ability to act or feel this way even more.

If you don’t naturally find yourself experiencing your desired emotions, you can remember past experiences, imagine the future you desire, or celebrate the good in the lives of others.

Once you create a positive experience, allow yourself to really savor the moment and experience it in your body.

Sense the experience fully in your body, taking in as many sensory aspects as possible—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, feeling, and thinking. Feeling the experience in your body helps it to sink in and create new connections in your brain. 

Like any new strength, your ability to focus your attention is like a muscle. It gets stronger the more you exercise it. Taking in positive experiences makes your brain “stickier” for them, which in turn increases the likelihood that you’ll notice more positive experiences. That makes your brain even more sticky so that you notice positive experiences more. It’s a feedback loop of positivity. This cycle makes it less and less likely for negative experiences to slip into your mind and affect your brain.

From now on, any time you experience a small win, seize the opportunity to celebrate.

When you receive a compliment, take a deep breath, let it really soak in, and say thank you. Or cross off items off your to-do list as you complete them so that you have a picture of accomplishment. Or, at the beginning or end of each day, think of three things that you’re proud of, that you appreciate about yourself, or that brought you joy.

Focusing on what brings you joy ten times a day, fifteen seconds at a time only, takes a total of two and a half minutes. But it’s one of the most powerful ways to change your brain and your life.

Research shows that the most significant determinants of success are how much you enjoy what you’re doing and how good you feel you are.

Happier individuals tend to have more stimulation to the nucleus accumbens—the control center deep in the brain that initiates actions towards our goals. Even the smallest shots of positivity can help you build new habits.

Whatever your hopes for the new year may be, I encourage you to gift yourself a few moments each day to take in the good. Not only is this a very effective way to cultivate new habits, but it’s also fun. I wish you all the best on your journey to building the habits you want!


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