Your resolutions shouldn’t make you feel worse: These New Year’s goals support mental health

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral…

Your resolutions shouldn’t make you feel worse: These New Year’s goals support mental health
Your resolutions shouldn’t make you feel worse: These New Year’s goals support mental health

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

What will the new year bring? In these times, it’s a question that might stir up anxiety.

Your New Year’s resolutions shouldn’t make you feel worse.

Instead of setting resolutions focused on restricting — your diet, your finances — spend 2023 caring for your well-being. Read more, play more, explore more, says Katie Curran, a licensed mental health counseling associate in Spokane. Find more time for rest, or to reset after a big move, breakup or job change.

“I love the idea of inviting more things into your life, especially for New Year’s resolutions,” said Curran, who uses art in her therapy practice. “I think people are moving more toward simplicity and joy.”

Not having a resolution is also an option. Always feeling pressure to produce or perform could add stress. 

If you feel strongly about setting a resolution, though, approach it with a positive mind. Research backs this up: People who aim to move toward an objective, rather than away from something they view as negative, are significantly more successful at reaching their goal. 

Take “spend less.” Rather than focusing on cutting back, consider making a budget, or saving up for a bigger purchase. If you want to feel better physically, think about ways to improve your sleep routine instead of fixating on numbers on a scale. 

“Instead of looking for the lack in your life, look for the positive,” Curran said.

Read on for more strategies to support your wellness next year. 

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Practice self-compassion

It’s often easier to think of ways to help friends or loved ones experiencing hardship than it is to support ourselves through tough times, says Megan Kennedy, director of the Resilience Lab at the University of Washington. We should offer ourselves the same validation and kindness that we’d give to others.

Classic resilience strategies, including mindfulness or contemplative practice, can help. Be mindful of your thoughts, feelings and sensations in the moment, and consider how those feelings relate to a sense of common humanity. “Like, ‘I’m not the only one who’s having this experience,’ ” Kennedy said. Then, offer yourself an act of kindness in the moment. If you feel regretful, for instance, offer yourself forgiveness. These steps toward self-compassion, which were first described by researcher Kristin Neff, can help build resilience and ease anxiety, stress and depression. 

Kennedy also suggests documenting what you’re grateful for in a gratitude journal. It could be as simple as a good cup of coffee. Pausing for 30 seconds, and reflecting on what’s going well, is another option. 

“The more that we focus on the good, the more that becomes a more established pattern in our brain,” Kennedy said.

Build community

The quality of our relationships with others is one of the best predictors of happiness, says Milla Titova, an assistant teaching professor who studies happiness and well-being at UW. It’s a lesson many of us learned during pandemic lockdowns. 

Research suggests that lifting up friends, family and neighbors helps us feel good, too. 

“Concentrating on improving (the) happiness of other people apparently is better for our own happiness, because it feeds those social connections that we really want,” she said. Run an errand for a neighbor. Dog-sit for a friend. “There’s endless possibilities,” Titova said. And, according to her research, this works in all sorts of relationships, such as those between siblings, roommates or children and their parents. 

If you live far away from friends and family, expressing kindness or just a simple exchange with a stranger can also improve your well-being, Titova said. “Have a small conversation with the person who bags your groceries, or ask the barista, ‘How’s your day going?’ ”

Express yourself creatively 

In her therapy practice, Curran says she starts by asking her clients to use watercolor or gouache paint to show the complexity of their experiences. Grief, for example, might involve feelings of sorrow, regret and anger. “There’s always this moment … where they look back after they’re done, and I ask them to describe their piece for me, and they’re like, ‘I have no idea where that came from. I didn’t expect all of that to come out.’ ”

She encourages them to paint abstractly instead of literally. Using art as a form of therapy isn’t about skill — it’s about finding a way to slow down, reflect and “tap back into themselves,” she said. “There’s a reason why art is so accessible and people take to it so much because it does provide a healing space.”

Art supplies can be expensive. A pen and paper will do. 

But if you have time, get creative about the materials you use. A movement toward upcycling has made it more affordable to buy paint, paper and tools. Seattle ReCreative, a nonprofit art center in Greenwood, accepts donations and sells arts and crafts materials for lower than typical prices. The store also runs a program that offers free supplies to teachers and artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. In Spokane, Art Salvage also offers discounted supplies.

Find peace in your environment

Where we spend our time — our homes, workplaces, the outdoors — can shape how we experience the world. 

Having a sense of ‘homeyness’ in the space where we live can improve happiness, Titova said. Home should feel safe “not just physically, but also psychologically, where a person just kind of feels like they can be themselves.” During the pandemic, many more people spent time and money to make their spaces cozier. But buying new throw pillows or completing a renovation aren’t necessary, Titova said. It’s more important to feel like your space connects you to yourself and to your loved ones. Sharing your home with family might make it feel homey. If you live alone, display photographs or mementos that bring back good memories of time spent with people you love.

Making a habit of getting outside, even for only 10 minutes a day, can also improve mental well-being, research suggests. During workshops she hosts, Kennedy will invite participants to spend three minutes outdoors and engage with their senses. Watching branches in the wind, smelling the rain or feeling the ground under foot is an opportunity to be aware of their environment in a more conscious way, she said. 

Put your phone in your back pocket as you walk to the bus or during a stroll at lunch. Spend a moment on a park bench. Instead of looking at your feet, look up.

Said Kennedy: “Those types of practices can help support people and don’t have to be over complicated.”

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times