The beginning of a new year is when most people set goals for better health and fitness habits. The end of January is when most people give up on those goals! How can you make this one the year of change?

 The Challenge: Small Steps for Big Changes

Start by setting goals you can keep. Instead of diving in with an intense work-out plan, try setting the smaller goal of walking 30 minutes every day.  You’ll feel better and increase your chances of success. Once you have the habit firmly established, start adding a few more small steps such as a stretching break instead of a coffee break. Or, add 5 sit-ups and 5 push-ups first thing in the morning. As you meet end goal and keep the routine for 2 weeks, add a little more.

 Replace a Bad Habit with a Good One

The substantial changes we want to make to our diet, fitness level or overall wellness start with an ending – the end of a bad habit. When it comes to bad habits, the best strategy is to replace to eliminate. Replacing a bad habit with a healthy habit will not only increase your chances of success, it will help you break the bad habit in a matter of weeks, and sometimes, just a few days.  Here’s how you swap out the bad with the healthy:

Identify your triggers – Habits are behavior patterns you practiced often because they helped you feel better. Each of these patterns formed for a good reason, usually to combat stress. Once the stress is gone, the bad habit remained.

Identify one behavior that you want to change, such as snacking while you watch TV. Look for the “triggers” that signal it is time to engage your habit. Your trigger may be feeling stressed. It might be you have programmed yourself to grab a snack whenever you watch TV.

Choose a healthier behavior habit – Once you know your triggers, choose a new healthier habit you can substitute for the one you want to eliminate. Whenever you would normally engage the old habit, make a plan to use the replacement behavior. Choose a new habit that is interesting or exciting to you. Make it something you can look forward to doing, or something you can enjoy eating.

Visualize success – Remember who and what you were before you picked up your bad habit. Recall all of the things you used to enjoy and imagine yourself doing those things again.

Bad habits are behavior imprints that have been used often. Your behavior is the result of your thoughts. When you visualize, you prepare your brain for a shift in your behavior. The desire to use the bad habit lessens with thoughts of more enjoyable activities.

Plan for failure – If the stress that started the habit pops back up in your life, you will be tempted to return to your old habit. After all, you started that habit because it felt good. Expect that you may have a slip or two. When it happens, remember that failure is the starting point for a new opportunity to succeed. Avoid negative self-talk about your failure and just start over the next day.

Find a support team – Find a new group of buddies who have a similar goal and support your new healthier lifestyle with like-minded friends.  Many fitness programs also offer support services with on-line forums or social gatherings to help you stay focused on your new healthy habit.

December Happiness Challenge: Give Yourself Away

Harvard Professor Michael Norton, author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, reports that it is entirely possible to buy happiness. All you have to do is spend your money – on other people!

December is the season of giving. For most Americans, it’s also the season for charitable giving and many charities take full advantage by asking for donations.  Americans are generous people. About 60% of us regularly support charities.

There are parts of the world where the cost of a cappuccino at a coffee shop, can provide clean water eliminating most of the illnesses that threaten someone’s health. The cost of two movie tickets is enough to provide the tools to make a living that lifts an entire family out of poverty.  The cost of dinner at a restaurant will start chicken and goat farms throughout the world, providing food and an income to a family. That’s an incredible amount of power to bring about real change in someone’s life.

Giving benefits both the receiver and giver. It’s one of the most effective ways to create deep, genuine happiness in your life. While writing a check feels great, giving your time feels even better. A few hours a month is enough to generate positive feelings for weeks afterwards. Giving talents and abilities that only you can give, further increases the pure joy of giving. It will also be the best gift you ever gave yourself.

Here’s the Challenge:

This holiday season, in addition to writing those checks, sign up for a little volunteer time. There are so many worthy organizations that need committed, reliable volunteers. Many people sign up for soup kitchens on the holidays, but volunteers are needed year round.

Give yourself away by spending some time coaching or tutoring children. Volunteer to drive the elderly for special errands or outings. Deliver Meals on Wheels a few days every month. Schools often need volunteer readers to help children who are struggling to learn.

If your time is really tight, sign up for the bone marrow registry or give blood once a month. It costs nothing but you could be saving a life.

Check out www.volunteermatch.org to find opportunities in your area that fit your interests, talents and availability.

Why this Practice Works

Giving is pure joy. Researchers report that feelings of happiness last longer and are felt more deeply when we give ourselves away.  The happiness lasts much longer than a pleasant experience such as a night out, a weekend trip or the pleasure of a new purchase.

Direct contact with the beneficiary of your giving is an opportunity to see how your actions impacted someone by putting a face to that person.  Writing a check is satisfying, but you miss the smiles and the tears that come with knowing someone cared. That personal connection reassures another person who is struggling that they aren’t alone. It also demonstrates to the giver that their contribution, however small, really matters.

Who Are the Richest Givers?

Poor and middle class families give more than twice as much on average as wealthy families (calculated as a percentage of income). People at the lower end of income levels also volunteer more of their time. The poor continue to give during difficult economic periods, while the wealthy slow their giving to match the growth of the economy.

Researchers tell us that the more religious a person is the more likely s/he is to give. Since the poor tend to practice their religion more than people at the upper end of the income levels, some researchers explain the giving disparity as being a matter of religion.

Or, perhaps regular folks know something about the joy of giving.  The greatest happiness comes when you give yourself away and trust that your generosity will make your life richer in ways that don’t involve money. Take the volunteer challenge this month and discover the joy of giving for yourself.

November Happiness Challenge: Gratitude

Every month, we’ll post a new happiness challenge for you to practice your happiness skills.

We set aside one day a year devoted to being thankful for all of the many blessings in our lives. While I love the Thanksgiving holiday, we would all be much happier if we learned to practice the skill of gratitude on a daily basis.

For the month of November, I am challenging you to do just that. By November 30th, you’ll be amazed at how much happier you are, just by recognizing all of the many wonderful things that make up your life.

Here is the three-step challenge:

Step 1. When you wake-up in the morning, start your day by thinking of one thing you are looking forward to that day. It doesn’t have to be anything special. As a matter of fact, this challenge works much better if you focus on the ordinary pleasures of your day. Spend about 30 seconds giving your complete attention to this one thing you are looking forward to experiencing. List all of the reasons in your mind. Imagine how the moment will look, feel, smell and taste (if it involves a meal).

Step 2. End your day by closing your eyes and calling to mind something that happened during the day that made you feel good. It could be a simple compliment from a co-worker or a hug from your child. The more ordinary the event, the better it is for this challenge. Bring the moment to mind and hold it in your thoughts as long as you can by going over all of the details of how it felt, what the room was like, what where the reactions of the people around you, and whatever details you can remember.

Step 3. Once a week, choose three of your best, ordinary moments and describe them in a journal entry. It can be hand-written or a computer journal. Write one paragraph about why those three moments stood out in your week. Whenever you are feeling down, read through your journal to remember all of the good things that make up your life.

Why This Practice Works

When we are feeling grateful, our minds are not able to process negative feelings like depression, anxiety or worry. This is why gratitude is like an instant happiness pill you can take anytime you are feeling down.

Researchers tell us that we tend to focus on our negative emotions and brush past the happier moments of our day. The negative is imprinted into our memories more deeply than the more pleasant events. By holding on to those happy moments and reliving them, we imprint them into our memories and expand our ability to experience happiness.

Take the challenge and experience it for yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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