A New Year…A Fresh Start

Auld Lang Syne - This classic New Year’s song reminds us fondly of “days gone by,” a sentiment sorely needed in a world detached from the timeless traditions of our Christian roots. In this ever-evolving digital age, where gratification is just a click away and when the future is unpredictable, we tend to avoid anything that requires step-by-step progress towards a definite goal.

Good Intentions Aren’t Good Enough!
Maybe that’s one reason we so often fail to keep our New Year’s resolutions, despite our best intentions. Lacking a traditional sense of the passage of time, we can make unrealistic goals and expect too much – or too little – of ourselves, a problem that psychology calls the “false hope syndrome“, which can set us up for failure and discourage us from trying again.

We live in a world where sacrifice is a dirty word, and where constant novelty and unlimited options make repetition and routine seem boring or even depressing. It’s no wonder that forming good habits is so difficult, even when we know they’re good for us!

Returning to the Sources
It’s easy to see how bad habits can lead to mental disorder, addiction, obesity, disease, failed relationships, poor work performance, and more. But the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, considered the cultivation of good habits to be just as essential to well-being as overcoming or eliminating the bad ones. In other words, the good life is not only about less junk food, less TV, less drinking, less screen time – (sigh) – but also about developing good habits that lead us towards our positive goals of overall well-being…otherwise known as “flourishing“.

Following Aristotle’s lead, modern psychology has begun to view mental health from a more positive perspective, focusing more on the pursuit of happiness and the discovery of meaning in life rather than on treating illness or avoiding suffering. According to the principles of positive psychology, wellbeing – or flourishing – is the result of introspection (paying attention to thoughts and emotions), satisfying relationships, meaningful work, and character formation directed towards a higher purpose or goal. Sounds kind of …. Catholic, doesn’t it?

Making a Habit of Good Habits
Character depends upon the development of virtues, which positive psychology calls strengths and which the Church describes as “habitual perfections of intellect and will.” Simply put, virtue is “the habit of doing good“. Building virtue requires practice, practice, and more practice…but the goal is well-worth the effort, because virtues lead not only to excellence and well-being, but also to happiness in our relationship with God, both here on earth and in heaven.

How to be Habitually Happy
Ever wonder if there’s a magic list of good habits that lead to flourishing? The Pursuit of Happiness website has compiled the best of scientific research and lists the following 7 Habits of Happy People:

  • Sharing activities, thoughts and feelings with friends or relatives
  • Practicing acts of kindness
  • Exercising and eating well
  • Fostering spirituality
  • Developing personal strengths and virtues and directing them towards a higher purpose
  • Cultivating an attitude of gratitude, optimism and mindfulness
  • Finding your “flow” – doing something purposeful and creative simply because you enjoy it

Dressed for Success
New Year’s resolutions can be about improving your physical well-being, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or exercising regularly…Or you might want to practice some healthy ways to manage stress…Or you can choose a specific virtue to develop, like patience, gratitude, or kindness. No matter what habit you decide to focus on in 2020, it’s important that you set yourself up for success rather than failure. Here are some strategies to help you zero in on what needs to change, stick to your goal, and flourish in the coming year:

  • Make your goal SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound
  • Start with baby steps rather than trying to accomplish your goal on the first day
  • Replace a bad habit with an incompatible good habit, e.g. smiling instead of frowning
  • Give yourself a high five, do a happy dance, or shout “Praise God!” when you follow through
  • Repetition is key…Repetition is key…Repetition is key…

Taking it to the Next Level

  • Visit Dynamic Catholic for a Catholic view on the power of a good habit
  • Like to listen in the car? Matthew Kelly dives deeper into habit change with his new CD
  • Join BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits Academy for his FREE course on making behavior change simple and sustainable
  • Work with an Integrated.Life coach at the Catholic Psych Institute and live the good life rooted in faith
  • Catch Deacon Basil Ryan Balke’s talk on New Year’s resolutions with Catholic Psyche Podcast

And if you start to feel discouraged about your failures or lack of progress, take a page from the Bible, where each day is a new Genesis in which – as Michael Card puts it – God says, “My child, begin again!”