Looking to make 2020 your happiest, most fulfilling year yet?
If your mental and emotional wellness took a backseat in 2019, there’s no better time than right now to prioritize it. (If anything, it’ll make the election year just mildly more bearable.) Your mood affects everything in your life ― your relationships, your work, your self-care ― so improving it should be at the top of your goal list.
That might feel like a huge and lofty task, but small, actionable habits can help you get there, according to experts. Below are the most common happiness tips therapists recommend. Maybe they’ll sound challenging or unrealistic (more on that later), but maybe they just might change your life.
1. Conquer one anxiety
Give yourself a motivational benchmark to start conquering your biggest fears this year.
“Single out the goal of selecting an anxiety that is holding you back, and thoroughly commit yourself to obliterating that fear,” said Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist. “Hold nothing back in your assault; treat that fear as though it is enemy number one.”
Perhaps you’ve been worried about signing up for a half marathon. Maybe you’re afraid to reach out to book agents because you don’t want to be rejected. Perhaps you’re fearful of having a difficult conversation with a toxic friend or family member and you’re putting it off. Set the goal, pick a reward you’ll get when you complete it, then get to it.
“The thing to keep in mind is that very often happiness is found just on the other side of a doorway guarded by our anxieties,” Talley said. “And the new year is a great time to start kicking down some doors.”
2. Lock down a sleep schedule that works for you
You may think you’re doing OK on sleep, but take a closer look at your schedule. Are you really getting optimal hours? Are you maintaining relatively the same bed time every night?
“Getting a [consistent] good night’s sleep is vital; chronic sleep deprivation is a huge problem, especially for those who work late or are extremely busy,” said Joanna Konstantopoulou, a psychologist and founder of the Health Psychology Clinic. “It’s not just the 40-hour marathons without sleep which can be detrimental to your psychological health, but simply losing an hour or two on a regular basis can have a significant impact on your mind and well-being.”
That last bit is important. If you’re constantly shaving off an hour here or there ― thinking you can get by on five hours a night ― it’s time to reevaluate that sleep schedule.
“Start with small steps by giving yourself a sensible and realistic bedtime,” Konstantopoulou said. “Try to go to bed half an hour before your usual bedtime and stick to it. Evaluate this new habit every day by having a journal and writing down your progress.”
She noted that this new routine will improve your memory, reduce anxiety, and “transport toxins out of the brain” to potentially prevent chronic illnesses.
3. Find one small self-care act that works for you and prioritize it
Pick a you-centric activity and engage in it regularly, said Elena Touroni, co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
“The most impactful mental health goal a person can set is the commitment to balance workload and responsibilities alongside activities that bring them a sense of well-being and enjoyment,” she said. “When there is an imbalance in what we’re giving out to the world, and what we’re taking for ourselves, that’s when our psychological resources get depleted.”
Her suggestions to get you started? Try beginning each day with a five-minute mindfulness meditation session. Want to go further? “Go to therapy to unravel a lifelong pattern, get a personal trainer, or make time for reading,” she said. “This commitment can be broken down into specific and concrete goals, depending on your personal preferences, but it all comes down to making self-care a priority.”
4. Spend 10 minutes a day outside
Go for a walk during your lunch break, spend a few minutes drinking your morning coffee outside or pick up running. It doesn’t even have to be for a long period of time.
“This year, resolve to spend less time inside and more time outdoors in natural settings,” said Michael Brodsky, a psychiatrist. “Research in multiple countries show that spending time in green spaces can lift your mood and relieve anxiety in as little as 10 minutes.”
5. Regularly practice a simple mindfulness exercise
“Many of us spend our days worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, thus, missing a great deal of what is happening in the here-and-now,” said Anna Prudovski, the clinical director of Turning Point Psychological Services.
Making an effort to be more present “increases the sense of well-being, promotes vitality, heightens our awareness, helps train our attention, improves the quality of our work, and enhances interpersonal relationships,” she said. Sounds pretty nice, right? “Be more present” can feel a little vague, so here’s how you can get started:
Each day, spend five minutes noticing your surroundings and how you feel. Do this by naming five things you see, four things you can physically feel, three different sounds you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. It’s OK if you point out something far away from you. Then take a second to label how you’re feeling in the moment (like, “I’m frustrated,” “I’m bored,” or “I’m excited”). This is known as a grounding exercise, which experts say helps with anxiety.
6. Say nice things about yourself
Roseann Capanna-Hodge, pediatric mental health expert and psychologist, suggested an adjustment to your everyday vocabulary, both in your thoughts and out loud.
“Instead of always focusing on the negative, flip your dialogue to only positive outcomes. For example, instead of saying, ‘If I get that job,’ switch it to, ‘When I get that job.’ Those subtle changes in using positive language helps to change your mindset to a glass half full instead of a glass half empty.”
You can also increase your positive thoughts by stating one thing you like about yourself when you look in the mirror each morning. Cheesy, but worth a shot.
7. Give up or cut back on one unhealthy habit
We know when things are bad for us, which can cause stress. You can curb that by reducing them or giving them up entirely, said Sarah C. McEwen, a cognitive psychologist. Think activities like high alcohol consumption or excessive caffeine consumption.
Getting those things in check “will all help to manage stress levels,” McEwen said.
8. Find a physical activity you love
“Exercise plays a large role in mental health,” said physician Jena Sussex-Pizula. “While studies are ongoing, a review article found consistent beneficial effects of exercise on depressive symptoms across multiple studies.”
How often? McEwen suggests 30 minutes a day if you can. “This [amount] has been shown to produce the most benefit for improving mood and reducing stress levels,” she said.
The most important part is finding something you enjoy. It doesn’t matter if it’s pilates, martial arts, spinning, running, dancing or lifting weights ― just make sure the activity is something that excites you.
9. Try meditation
Haven’t jumped on the bandwagon just yet? Now is as good a time as ever. McEwen suggests meditation for those who want to improve their level of stress resilience.
“A mindfulness meditation practice will have a tremendous positive effect longterm,” she said. “I recommend allocating at least 30 minutes daily, which can be divided into morning and evening.”
Feeling intimidated by the concept? McEwen suggested trying a local class or an app like Headspace, Waking Up or Insight Timer.
“Research has shown that the regular practice of meditation can actually improve your health because it lowers the negative effects of not only high cortisol, but also high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” she said. “Other great benefits of regular meditation include mental clarity and focus, improvement of memory and overall higher level of mental performance.”
10. Stop negative thoughts in their tracks
“Our thoughts are not always reality,” said Judy Ho, a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and author of ”Stop Self Sabotage.” “And we need to get into the routine of challenging them and changing our relationships to our thoughts.”
You can do this by asking yourself a simple question when you’re beating yourself up. Next time you have a negative thought, ask yourself: Does this completely and accurately capture what’s going on?”
Ho said from there, you can transform the thought using one of two tactics. One is called “yes, but” and one is called “labeling.”
“‘Yes, but’ involves recognizing a not so great thing, and [adding] something that is positive or shows progress,” she said. “Example: I did eat three cupcakes while trying to cut down on sugar, but I have been doing a great job with healthy eating and can start fresh tomorrow.”
And as for labeling, try mentally recognizing or acknowledging that the thought you’re having is toxic. According to Ho, this “takes the wind out of the sails of a negative thought and reminds you that a thought is just a mental event, and nothing more.”
11. Invest in a quality relationship
“If you want to have good long-term mental and physical health, you need to first see if you have meaningful, loving relationships,” said clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland. “Who knows you better than anyone and who do you know better than anyone? Have you invested in that relationship by staying in touch and talking on the phone (not just texting)? And when was the last time you got together?”
Gilliland suggests picking one person close to you this year, and planning to spend quality time together.
“If we’re not careful, we will end up giving our best in places that aren’t good for our mental health,” he said. “Study after study finds that loving meaningful relationships are good for our mental and physical health.”
12. Read self-development books
“Read at least one book on someone you admire, and how they have dealt with the struggles in their life,” Gilliland said. “There are a lot of ways to learn about your mental health, from therapy to self-help to the lives of other people.”
You can pick up many tips and find a lot of inspiration in these motivational books, whether they’re memoirs or expert-backed advice. Need a specific suggestion?
“I have so enjoyed Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography and recent album ‘Western Stars’ where he talks about his struggle with depression and family issues,” Gilliland said. “It’s powerful and encouraging … You can’t help but see yourself in some of his stories, he can paint with words like very few people can. It’s a wonderful way to learn about your mental health without feeling like its work.”
13. Cut back on your social media use
So often we view people’s highlight reels on social media. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy in our own lives, according to experts. And given that research shows spending too much time online is linked to poor mental health, now’s the perfect time to cut back.
“External validation is temporary; it’s difficult to maintain the pressure to chase ‘likes,’” said therapist Jennifer Musselman. “Build your self esteem from competence of something important to you, and by being of service to others.”
14. Set better boundaries
Did you find yourself feeling chronically overwhelmed and stretched thin in 2019? Time to reel that in and make more space for you by setting boundaries.
“This one is more important than people realize, and they have way more control than they realize,” Gilliland said. “If you don’t want to go, then don’t go!”
Consider: Is it something you think you “should” do? If so, then why? In the words of a popular therapist joke, stop should-ing yourself. Set those boundaries to thrive in 2020.
15. Make a progress list each week
Expecting perfection guarantees you’ll feel like a failure at least part of the time, and can lead to serious anxiety.
“Learn the art of progress, not perfection,” Musselman said. “We are setting ourselves up for failure from the get-go [when we expect] to ‘have it all’ perfectly balanced. In other words, we will always feel like we are failing.”
From “doing it all” as a mom to building your entrepreneurial business to perfecting your talent, it’s time to let go of that expectation that things are always going to be perfect. Instead, try writing down the incremental improvements you made each week. Celebrate small successes that eventually will lead to big ones.
16. Allow yourself to be sad
We experience a range of emotions for a reason: They’re necessary to our overall well-being. Research even shows that crying can feel incredibly therapeutic.
Musselman said in order to truly feel happy, you need to “stop chasing happiness.” That can lead to more feelings of inner peace and calm, which of course, can lead to a more improved mood.
So embrace times when you feel disappointed, angry or sad instead of trying to rush through them.
17. Get a therapist if you’re able to do it
If you were trying to get in physical shape and had no idea where to start, you might turn to a coach or personal trainer. Mental health works the same way.
There are so, so many benefits to seeing a therapist. And there are affordable options, too: Attend group therapy at a local mental health center, seek free options in your community, opt for a sliding-scale psychologist, find a provider through your health insurance or try an app like Talkspace to get started.
“Getting a therapist in 2020 would be a good goal if you need a therapist and have been putting it off,” Talley said.
18. Write in a gratitude journal
Practicing gratitude “is so essential for a full and happy life,” Talley said.
Instead of allowing your brain to go to a place of anxiety and stress, Talley says to arm yourself with grateful thoughts. Writing them down helps.
“If you wake up and focus on that which you have to be grateful for, your brain becomes better at finding even more [gratitude],” Talley said.
19. Turn your phone off
It’s been shown in many studies that too much tech time can negatively impact mental health.
Become less available via text and email so you don’t feel emotionally tethered to your phone, and spend more time off your devices. Opt for screen-free activities ― especially at night ― that help you disconnect from certain social and work stressors.
“While it’s unclear if sedentary screen time is a marker for or risk factor for depression (as all that has been shown is a correlation), there appears to be a consistent association of increased screen time in patients with depression and anxiety,” Sussex-Pizula said.
20. Reduce food shame and stress through mindful eating
Have thoughts around food, calories, dieting, etc. been weighing on you in 2019? Lisa Hayim, a registered dietitian and founder of food therapy program Fork The Noise, said it’s time to kick this to the curb.
“When we feel nervous, scared, anxious, or even unsure of what to eat or how much, our stress hormones begin to fire,” she said. “Our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, and we’re no longer making empowered decisions.”
Does this sound like you? Are you constantly thinking about what a food choice might “do” to your body?
“Breathe. Your body knows what it wants and how much it wants, when it wants it,” she said. Listening to it is called intuitive or mindful eating: enjoying whatever you want and taking cues from your body when it’s hungry and full.
“Decreasing stress around food choices is not just good for the body, it’s good for the mind and the soul,” Hayim said.