How to Have a Happy New Year

By Jon Miller Updated on January 10th, 2021

The end of one year and the start of the next one is a time to reflect on a question; how can we make this year better than the last? What have we learned? What do we still need to learn to have a happy new year?

Especially this past year, we’ve all had to learn to adapt to inconveniences of varying degrees. Whether it’s working from home, video meetings, physical distancing in public spaces, the correct wearing of masks and washing of hands, we all spent time outside of our comfort zones. And while things are getting better, we’re not out of the woods. Whether we make this new year a better one will depend on what we choose to make of it.

Harness the Happiness Enablers

There is a short list of things that enable basic happiness and well-being in humans. Commonsense, backed by scientific studies, reveal these to be regular exercise, a healthy diet, quality sleep, social connections and a sense of gratitude. How much sleep, food, exercise, play, etc. do we need to be happy? How can we use our time and energy better? If the foundation of happiness is feeling good, the first step may be to get the right balance of these happiness enablers. We can start by learning about ourselves.

But this is easier said than done! We aren’t all saints. Often, people exceed the boundaries of these happiness enablers, overindulging in an effort to find happiness. This knocks us out of balance. Personally, I’ll spend the next few weeks correcting for eating too much, not exercising enough and going to sleep too late during the holidays. But I think I know what it takes to get back in balance. It’s true I’m a year older, so I might need to learn and adjust my plan. Although it’s not the sole answer, a happier new year can be the result of going back to basics in health and wellness.

It may be a lot to ask, in the midst of a pandemic, to try correcting one or more of deficiencies or imbalances in these happiness enablers. On the other hand, is it ever a good time? Pick an easy one and start learning about simple things you can do.

What We Know about How We Learn

Even before we start work on shoring up one of our happiness enablers, we may need to learn how to learn. Learning a new skill, or unlearning poor habits, requires our neural tissue to function in a new way. This can feel awkward, uncomfortable or practically painful. But there are better ways of learning. Humanity has learned a lot about how we learn in the past couple of decades.

A good practical starting point is the book Atomic Habits. It promises better living by learning how to make tiny changes. My colleague Ron Pereira featured the author James Clear in a one-hour podcast that breaks down these concepts very well.

Learn Something New Just for the Sake of It

Some us may already live a life where the happiness enablers of diet, exercise, sleep, social interaction and gratitude are in balance. What to do if we don’t see opportunities to feel happier by improving in these areas? Why not learn something new just for the sake of it? Many of us have spent some of our stay-at-home time taking up new hobbies. In addition to filling time, learning something new feels good. We feel renewed. It gives us something new to talk about with others. We feel smarter.

For instance, over the last year I’ve learned more than I wanted to about pandemics and how they can happen even in this modern world. There were ample opportunities to make myself smarter about public health, virology, race relations, the U.S. Constitution, and more. Although the reasons for these lessons weren’t always happy ones, I allowed myself to be happy with the feeling of a growing brain.

I’ve never met anyone whose reaction to learning was, “Dang it, you’ve made me smarter, and I don’t like the feeling!” People don’t like the feeling of being proven wrong, or having a strong belief exposed as being false. Well, in our rapidly changing world, the longer we live the more opportunities we’ll have to learn that we were wrong. So we might as well shift our thinking and start liking the feeling of getting smarter.

Resilience through Openness to New Things

Many of us make resolutions and lay out plans for the following year at about this time. But as the past year has shown, thing rarely go exactly as planned. When faced with unforeseen circumstances and challenges, we need to be resilient.

Just like athletic training helps our bodies and minds be prepared for the actual contest against our opponents, processing new information and experiences helps us handle new situations in life. The more we learn about history, the more we can understand and be better prepared for once-in-a-century events.

Aside from the content of what we learn, the deliberate practice of overcoming the initial resistance of learning something new prepares us for new experiences. It makes our brain, and therefore the mind and spirit, more resilient to whatever life may throw at us.

The Threshold of Knowledge Will Find You

If we don’t learn to fail and try again, we fail to learn. We fail because things turned out differently than we expected. We can be unhappy when things don’t go as we wanted, or we can see it as a discovery. This is what Toyota Kata calls the threshold of knowledge. This requires becoming comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. In the narrow context of problem solving and continuous improvement, facing and going beyond our threshold of knowledge helps us from jumping to conclusions or stubbornly defending solutions that aren’t working.

In the broader context of modern life, the threshold of knowledge is like an invisible wave that washes over us. When we stop being learners and are no longer trying to find our threshold of knowledge, something dangerous happens. The threshold of knowledge comes looking for you. We get drenched. But we don’t need to be scared. Once we are aware of this, we can recognize that part of our unhappiness comes from being hit in the face by the threshold of knowledge wave. We can embrace learning, go looking for a wave to surf and be happy.

As in All Good Things, Start Small

When learning something new, or working on a habit, it’s easy to get discouraged. Learning for adults takes more effort, progresses in fits and starts. Rather than committing to a result, commit to the process of learning, and let the results follow. Give yourself permission to be a beginner, learning how to learn.

When our learning motivation is solely on the result, reward, or being great at something, we will spend time being unhappy. Instead, a big part of our motivation must be to appreciate that we are learning. What a gift that is. Then the feeling of, “I think I’m getting better,” or smarter, keeps us going.

Even if this feeling isn’t our natural reaction, it’s one we can learn. Every little bit of progress we make reminds us that we overcame a small obstacle. Be encouraged. Look forward to the next small obstacle, and the feeling of overcoming it as we learn. We can develop a positive emotional response by practicing, gaining mastery a little bit at a time, and having a neutral or better attitude about the process.

  1. Edward Davila

    January 12, 2021 - 2:13 pm

    Good Analogy

  2. Lucio Black

    February 18, 2021 - 10:47 am

    Love the point of view. Keep it comin’, Jon!

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