“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbours, and let each new year find you a better man,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, a lifelong advocate of self-improvement, in 1755.
As 2020 kicks off, many of us will be taking a leaf out of Franklin’s book. Unfortunately, many new year’s resolutions are founded on wishful thinking rather than solid evidence, but psychological science can now offer some proved ways to boost your wellbeing.
Based on a growing understanding of human emotions and the ways to control them, these techniques help us overcome bad habits, improve our relationships and manage our stress, so that we can all become better people in the coming year and decade.
1. Differentiate your feelings
To begin, take a moment to describe how you are feeling right now.
Many people tend to use extremely broad terms – “good” or “bad” – or use more specific terms interchangeably (“angry” is seen as a synonym for “upset”). Their feelings are a kind of fog. Others see something more like a rainbow with distinct shades: they are “excited” or “ecstatic” or they are “irritated” or “frustrated”. “They are better at pinpointing exactly how they feel at a given moment,” says Lisa Starr at the University of Rochester in New York.
This is emotion differentiation and simply labelling our feelings in this way can help us to soften their impact. People with better emotion differentiation recover more quickly from stress and are at less risk of developing depression. They are also less likely to become aggressive in frustrating situations and to self-medicate with alcohol when they are unhappy. This skill can even make us more rational, by helping us to account for the way our mood might be influencing our financial decisions, for example.
Fortunately, emotion differentiation seems to improve with practice. So try to spend some time each day picking apart the many colours of your feelings and you may soon see benefits to your mind, body and relationships.
2. Embrace your bad moods
While labelling your emotions, you should also take note of your feelings about them. Suppose you are disappointed after a rejection. Do you accept those emotions for what they are? Or do you tell yourself that you “shouldn’t let it get to you” and strive to remain cheerful?
While it may seem healthy to talk yourself out of feeling bad, the research shows that the opposite is often true. Struggling against every negative emotion, and judging yourself for feeling them, can amplify their effects, reducing overall life satisfaction in the long term. People who take a more accepting attitude to those low points, as an inevitable part of life, tend to bounce back to greater overall happiness.
Clearly, persistent low moods are a mental health issue that need serious attention, but the more transient storms are better weathered without further negative judgments. You might even consider the possibility that some negative feelings have a purpose: stress can actually boost things such as creativity and motivation, for example, and people who see the benefits of bad moods in this way tend to report better emotional wellbeing overall.
3. Talk to yourself
If you struggle to adopt that more dispassionate acceptance of the way you are feeling, you could also benefit from a technique known as psychological distancing.
If I had an argument with a friend, for example, I might talk to myself in the third person (“David was angry because…”) or imagine myself as a fly on the wall, observing the situation as an outsider. These simple techniques help us to adopt a more detached perspective, so that we can recognise and analyse our feelings without becoming too immersed in them.
Research by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan shows that these strategies reduce impulsive and rash reactions, such as aggression, and accelerate the body’s recovery from stress, while promoting more objective decision-making. Couples taught this strategy also have fewer arguments and show greater relationship satisfaction.
If you are wrestling with a particularly upsetting experience, you can also try putting pen to paper, writing about the ways those feelings are affecting your life, your relationships and your hopes for the future.
Abundant research shows that a few sessions of “expressive writing” – ranging from 15 minutes to an hour – can boost people’s emotional resilience to major upheavals or challenges, with lasting improvements to mood and physical health. People who have engaged in expressive writing are less likely to visit the doctor or take time off work in the weeks after the exercise.
Prof James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin, who discovered the effect, warns not to overdo it. “My recommendation has always been that if you are really upset about something, try writing – but only plan to write three or four times.” For the best results, you might also try to practise the emotion differentiation or psychological distancing (writing the experience in the third person, say). This should help you to process the emotions and their meaning to you, without being overwhelmed by the bad feelings.
5. Adopt a new ritual
You do not need to be religious or superstitious to benefit from small symbolic routines. A study by Prof Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard Business School, for instance, took a group of karaoke singers. Before their performance, the participants had to draw a self-portrait, sprinkle it with salt and then throw it in the bin. Although the ritual relied on no specific beliefs, the actions felt symbolic, the participants felt less anxious and were more accurate in their singing.
Rituals can also boost our sense of self-control. Prof Allen Ding Tian at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, meanwhile, asked people to perform a series of rituals, such as sitting up straight, closing their eyes and counting to 10, before eating. He found that the actions, while apparently meaningless, led them to choose healthier foods. “It enhances individuals’ subjective feelings of self-discipline,” Tian says.
We can be creative when we design our own rituals. It could be listening to a particular playlist before an important event or performing the same stretches as you get up in the morning, or repeating some mantras, any fixed, repetitive sequence of actions that leaves you feeling empowered and in control.
6. Drop your defences
Sometimes, our desire for high self-esteem can be our own worst enemy, preventing us from making the very changes that would improve our lives.
It can be bruising to realise that our own behaviour, like overeating or drinking too much alcohol, have been harming our bodies, for instance, and so we become defensive and deny there is a problem. Or at work we can reject useful feedback that would help us to improve, while the very fear of failure – and how it will reflect on us – can undermine our performance.
In each case, a technique called self-affirmation can help, which involves reflecting on the many things of personal value to you beyond the particular issue at hand. You might reflect on your love of music, say, or your relationships with your family. By reminding yourself of the many facets of your personality, you should feel more secure in yourself and less threatened by negative feedback or failure in any one domain, increasing your chances of positive change.
If we all took a bit more time to recognise our many existing qualities, then we might just find it easier to win those wars with our vices, to be at peace with our neighbours – and to be better people in the coming year and decade.
The Intelligence Trap by David Robson is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15
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