Raising Happiness


The Snowball Effect: Practice one happiness habit, and the others will follow

January 6, 2010 | The Main Dish | 1 comment

First, a correction: a careful reader of my newsletter last week noticed that the link in the last email was to a very old version of the Happiness Habit Tracker. Here's the link to the new one. The old version encourages rewards; after further review of the research related to rewards and children, I revised my recommendations: rewards may work in the short-run, but they back-fire in the long run. (Feel free to reward yourself however much you want, though: rewards work differently in the adult brain.)

This correction is a good opportunity to talk a little more about making those New Year's resolutions stick.

My therapist friend Ariel, one of the smartest women I know, doesn't like New Year's Resolutions. If you are going to change a habit, she says, go ahead and do it now. Don't wait for the New Year or give up if you haven't really started by the second week in January. I see her point, but personally I love New Year's resolutions. I love the idea of a clean break, of the opportunity to start anew. Usually I go crazy with long lists of zillions of things I'd like to change about myself, my family, my kids: and then, to Ariel's point, I end up changing very little.

If you'd like to start a Happiness Habit in your family this year (for example, I recommend getting an enjoyable and doable dinnertime routine into place if you don't already have one) here is my best advice: START SMALL, and start now. Print out this habit tracker, and start doing one absurdly small thing today.

For example, take my New Year's resolution "to exercise more." This is not hard given that I don't really exercise at all right now (to Kelly Corrigan's point, not exercising is a real time saver—cuts back on the time I'd spend exercising AND the time I spend showering). But leave it to me to MAKE it hard. My thought process usually goes something like this:

"Okay, so I'm going to exercise more. Research shows that you really need to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5-6 times a week to reap the benefits, so I'll schedule a walk every day but Sunday. Actually, maybe I'll run a half marathon with my neighbor. So I'll schedule 2 or 3 longer runs a week. Maybe I should find a running coach. I'll definitely need to start doing some strength training, too, at least a couple of days a week. And stretching. I should get back to yoga. I really want to be doing that at LEAST once a week."

I do this with my kids and their habits as well: I start with the idea of, say, getting into the habit of doing more art with them in some routine way, and suddenly I've created a home art curriculum of fine arts training so unrealistic we never even get started.

What I need to do: plan to "exercise more" in absurdly small turtle steps. Week 1: Three days this week, just walk the dog, even if I only end up having time to go around the block. This will get me into the habit of reintegrating exercise into my life a little bit at a time.

Here is the good news: starting small can have very big effects. When you start doing one small thing that takes some willpower, it will have an effect on other things you'd like to change. Self discipline is like a muscle: make it stronger, and you'll have more willpower for other things.

The Snowball Effect
The weirdest thing about the research on willpower is this phenomena that when we start consciously working on one thing that takes self-discipline, we also tend to start improving our lives in other areas as well. When researchers ask college students to attend to one area of their lives—trying to improve their posture throughout the day, for example, or to attend to their finances for a few weeks—they end up doing other things that might end up on a New Year's Resolution list, too, like watching less TV, working out more, and improving their eating habits.

We can't consciously pursue too many goals at once, or goals that are too ambitious at the outset, because our willpower muscle isn't strong enough yet. But strengthening our willpower eventually works wonders on the things that we aren't consciously focusing on, too.

One last thing: if you feel you and your kids have willpower fatigue—you've used up your stores for the day—find a way to laugh. Research shows that it improves your mood and in so doing restores your willpower reserves.

© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Selected References:

Baumeister, Roy F., and Matthew Gailliot, C. Nathan DeWall, and Megan Oaten, 2006, "Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior," Journal of Personality, Vol 74, Issue 6, pp 1773-1802.

The above journal article, available to all, reviews current research on self regulation. Senia Maymin wrote a posting summarizing this research that might be more fun to read than the actual journal article. And Penelope Trunk blogs about this research with some regularity in her entertaining way; in fact, her most recent posting about it is more detailed and probably more helpful than this posting. (Her blog isn't often all that science-based, and it isn't related to parenting, but I've found that when I'm feeling scattered and stretched thin, Trunk makes me feel positively high functioning.)

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Christine –
I love this snowball concept because it so beautifully supports the idea that we are good to ourselves when we feel good about ourselves. 
My beef with resolutions, and what seems to set them apart in my mind from goal setting, is the notion that they are often based on a set of shoulds (I should exercise more, I should lose weight, I should stop smoking), underscoring this idea that we aren’t ok as we are. 
The snowball effect seems to support the careful balance of acceptance and change – I accept who I am and with that compassion recognize that I deserve to be more active (note, no shoulds).  When framed this way, it makes a ton of sense why a small change like walking around the block a few times a week would lead to other positive steps.
For most of us, if we talked to ourselves the way we talk to our kids, we’d feel a whole lot better and make a whole lot more positive changes!
Thanks for sharing all this with us.


Ariel | 9:46 pm, January 12, 2010 | Link

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