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We explore how the science of behavior change can help us form new habits and be happier while doing it.
Link to episode transcript: http://tinyurl.com/4e294mdt
Many of us are heading into the new year with a resolution we want to live by — a new good habit we’d like to form. But actually sticking to those good habits isn’t always easy — one failure can have us losing the motivation to continue. For our show, we spoke with Cholpon Ramizova and Derick Gnonlonfoun, a couple who set out to create better food habits by cooking at home more and incorporating more vegetables into their meals. As they started to develop this new habit, the two realized that a mindful and kind attitude towards themselves was a key element to their success. Later, we hear from psychologists Katy Milkman and Kristin Neff, to learn about how failure can actually be beneficial when pursuing a goal, and how to cope with it.
Cholpon Ramizova and Derick Gnonlonfoun are a couple living in London.
Check out Derick’s artwork here: http://tinyurl.com/2kc9h478
Katy Milkman is a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Co-Director of The Behavior Change for Good Initiative.
Learn more about Katy and her work: http://tinyurl.com/4ypvmvhf
Find more information on the Behavior Change for Good Initiative: http://tinyurl.com/mr94wh6f
Follow Katy on Twitter: http://tinyurl.com/mr25etdp
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
How to Make New Year’s Resolutions That Feel Good: http://tinyurl.com/3bvs8zb5
Make Self-Compassion One of Your New Year’s Resolutions: http://tinyurl.com/yc2t42nt
Tips for Keeping New Year’s Resolutions: http://tinyurl.com/y2pt9uz2
How to Learn From Your Failures: http://tinyurl.com/5h7uybux
More Resources on Forming Good Habits:
BBC - 4 simple, science-backed ways to build habits that stick: http://tinyurl.com/2p8dk6wt
Harvard -What Does It Really Take to Build a New Habit? http://tinyurl.com/ndrfybyb
Stanford - Building Habits: The Key to Lasting Behavior Change: http://tinyurl.com/4utw95sj
TED - The 1-minute secret to forming a new habit: http://tinyurl.com/mum8kzvj
Help us share The Science of Happiness!Rate us on Spotify and share this link with someone who might like the show: http://tinyurl.com/2pxdw8vr
Derick Gnonlonfoun: I was born in 1993, in a town called Abomey-Calavi in West Africa. Scarcity was the keyword at the time. Not because we didn’t have food on the table, but the idea of having an abundance of choices.
Cholpon Ramizova: I relate to that a lot because I was born in Kyrgyzstan. It wasn’t about having access to a wide variety of foods. When I was in my grandmother’s village, you would have the same three, four meals every week for the entire year.
Derick Gnonlonfoun: Food was not made for entertainment. Food was made for nutrition.
Cholpon Ramizova: So when I became an adult and then had access to my own resources, I would indulge and try new things.
Derick Gnonlonfoun:Today, for example, walk into the office, there’s a barista station and like cakes, and then there’s donuts, and cookies and then, and there’s this and that.
Cholpon Ramizova: Also through COVID was a pretty difficult time. I was in Austria at the time and they had a very stringent lockdown and ordering food was one of the only ways that I could engage with the outside world. You know, you wanna entertain yourself or you wanna feel something, so then you order food and I think it’s been difficult to kind of get out of that.
We’re both foodies. We love food. All kinds.
Derick Gnonlonfoun: Anything.
Cholpon Ramizova: Anything.
But one of the things that we were trying to do is I guess maybe not indulge so much, and have a more balanced approach.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Whether it’s healthier eating, exercising more, or something else, a lot of us are thinking about the changes we want to make in our lives this time of year, which, at the time of this recording, is January 2024.
Breaking old habits, or creating new ones, is hard work! Some surveys suggest most of us ultimately don’t succeed at making our New Year’s resolutions stick for an entire year.
So today we’re talking about the science of behavior change — what it takes to make real changes that last, and how to tend to our happiness while we do it.
Our guests are Cholpon Ramizova and Derick Gnonlonfoun, a couple who spent the last month working on changing their eating habits. We’re gonna hear about what worked for them and what didn’t — and how learning to practice self-compassionate was critical to their success.
Later in the show, we’ll explore the science of making and keeping good habits.
Katy Milkman: If you’re setting goals correctly, what the research says is you shouldn’t be achieving all of them. ‘Cause goals should stretch you, that means you need to have a way to deal with the fact that you’re gonna be encountering some goal failure along the way.
Dacher Keltner: More, after these ads.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’re talking about the science of how to make and stick with our New Year’s resolutions.
Today we’re joined by Cholpon Ramizova and Derick Gnonlonfoun, a couple who live together in London.
For the past month, they’ve both been trying hard to change their eating habits — which surveys show is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions, and I would add, one of the most difficult.
They gave themselves three goals: To cook more at home, to add more vegetables to their meals, and to eat together at the table whenever possible, instead of alone or in front of the TV.
Today they’re reporting back on how it went. And we’ll also consider what the literature says about what can help us succeed in behavior change. Cholpon and Derick, thanks for joining us on the show.
Derick Gnonlonfoun: Thanks for having us.
Cholpon Ramizova: Thank you.
Dacher Keltner: So we gave you this task of setting a goal to form a new habit rather than break one. And I think it’s really important because studies show that, you know, when we set goals to do things, we often are more successful than if we set goals to eliminate things or cut things out. How did you frame it in terms of shifting your, your eating together and your cooking together?
Cholpon Ramizova: We really wanted to have this sort of positive goal where we weren’t taking anything away. And instead having an additive approach. And I think that was really helpful. So when we decided what we wanted to do, we said, okay, let’s make this simple and achievable and so we set on adding more vegetables to our meals and as much as possible tried to cook at home.
Dacher Keltner: So I have to know like,, how’d to go?
Derick Gnonlonfoun: It’s been a learning curve for the both of us.
I would say that generally speaking when I start doing something, I go in intensely. Say I’m joining a new gym, there’s a gym in the office. So the first time I discovered it, I went four times in a week, right? So I tend to go really intensely, and then I would just either bore myself or tire myself. So I think this time round, the way I reframed it was to think of it as more of doing a little extra effort for me to get to a place where I have the time, I have the energy to cook is really helping me build that consistency in the habit and not go too fast.
Dacher Keltner: What do you think Cholpon, did you, did you feel like cooking together just became a more regular practice for you?
Cholpon Ramizova: For the most part, I think, yeah, we achieved what we wanted to do.I think what was really liberating, probably for me at least in my hangups and issues with goals and putting pressure on myself and things was that I wasn’t counting, right? I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this many meals this week were a failure because we didn’t achieve what we set out to do.” It was just more of like how I was feeling. And whether I was willing to continue, Which is that I was willing to continue. And not only that, but I think now moving forward, I won’t even think of it as like a goal to be achieved. It’s just something that’s something that I almost just do out of habit.
Dacher Keltner: Being hard on ourselves when we don’t live up to the goals that we set is such a common thing. And there’s a lot of nice research by people like Ashley Kuchar and Kristin Neff on just practicing self-compassion when you’re trying to work towards goals. Athletes do better if they practice self-compassion, they’re a little bit less hard on themselves. As you did this process of shifting your eating with specific goals, how did the theme of self-compassion play out for you?
Cholpon Ramizova: I struggled with that a bit. If we opted to order instead of cooking at home or something because it was a couple thing that we were doing right, I blamed the unit right as, “Oh gosh, we’re not doing enough.”
Me externalizing that pressure that I had put on myself onto us and onto him. It was just a reflection of the turmoil that was going on inside. Like, another example of something that I didn’t follow through on for myself. So it was not just about this, but it was about, every other goal, that I had perceived I had not reached and I think, we had a couple of pretty honest conversations, where Derek told me, “Hey, you know, stop doing that.”
Derick Gnonlonfoun: You can’t shoot an arrow if you don’t go back and then release it. setbacks are part of the rhythm, you know? Whatever comes up will eventually come down and you have to find the balance in that.
Cholpon Ramizova: What I realized in the end was that I just needed to get out of that mindset. And have a more balanced approach. I guess to life in general.
Derick Gnonlonfoun: Yeah. Finding balance and sort of defining what balance would be for the both of us.
We’ve also identified the fact that we behave differently when faced with a goal or faced with some kind of a challenge and whereby failure would mean, not enough effort. And we deal with stress in very different ways as well.
Maybe we lack giving ourselves, you know, a bit more solace on things that we’ve seemingly sort of failed at but also accepting that, it happens right? It happens. And it does not need to mean that our entire self is now a failure.
Dacher Keltner: You know, it’s widely assumed that being self critical is really good for our motivation and that we do our best work when we’re always criticizing ourselves but research finds that the opposite is true. You know, Serena Chan here at UC Berkeley and other investigators have found that just practicing a bit of kindness or compassion towards the self actually makes us work harder after we fail tests. It makes us seek to improve our social relationships when we’ve made moral mistakes. A lot of other benefits for our well-being as well.
I’m curious, for both you guys, how things shifted when you started to be more self-compassionate?
Cholpon Ramizova: I feel like throughout this month I started out wanting to achieve, you know, this goal and trying to incorporate these habits with my partner. And along the way, what I learned was a parallel lesson, which is that I just need to be more kind to myself and not overthink, you know, the goal itself.
And one of the tactics that we were going to use was a get out of jail free card.
Dacher Keltner: What Cholpon is talking about is a tip for creating a new habit that comes from the behavior change expert Katy Milkman. We’ll hear from later in the show, but the idea is, you should set yourself goals that are ambitious, that are specific and measurable so you can track your progress. But you should also give yourself one or two get out of jail free cards each week to account for the inevitable ups and downs of life – busy days, or just different energy levels – so you don’t get discouraged. Alright, back to Cholpon.
Cholpon Ramizova: In the week I would only use that once or twice and say, okay, right now I’m using a get out of jail free card. But I think for me, at least in the narrative that I have that we talked about with the pressuring myself, that’s not useful. You know?
For example, I had my period and I have pretty awful ones. I was not feeling well at all, mentally or physically I was in pain. I don’t even know if I was thinking about the goal at that point. But, normally if I did have a similar sort of like, goal that was around achieving a certain kind of body or whatever, I wouldn’t allow myself the wiggle room, even in that instance, right? And I think this time I was thinking, this is awful, and I need to give myself a break.
So Derek got me a bag of Cheetos, even though they were super, super expensive because they go for about 10 pounds a bag in the U.K., which is like 12 US dollars or more.
But I needed that.
I think for me, I need to be kind and compassionate to myself no matter what. And not just because I have this get out of jail free card. And in whatever instance that comes up where I need to be more compassionate, I need to act on that, instead of penalizing myself for something that I don’t feel I’m doing right.
Dacher Keltner: What about you, Derick?
Derick Gnonlonfoun: The way I approach it today is more, it’s less about the goal that I’m setting for myself than the person that I want to become when I believe the goal has been achieved. I tell myself now that I am healthy and I’m making healthy choices. I might slip one day or another, but it doesn’t take away the new identity that I’m trying to form for myself.
The idea is for you to get to a place where you are kind to yourself and being kind to yourself might also mean saying no to certain things that would give you pleasure, but it’s being kind to your future self sometimes, and getting to the bottom of why you have that craving and that attraction to that specific food, is somewhat of an escape for you. It’s a long term dance almost right, of kindness and acceptance.
Dacher Keltner: There are millions of people sort of coming up with New Year’s resolutions right now. And you guys have chosen one of the harder ones, I think, which is to, as a couple, to find time to cook and eat together and change your habits. And you’ve given us such wisdom and I’m actually thinking about some New Year’s resolutions with your wisdom in mind. Derek and Cholpon, thanks so much for being on the show.
Derick Gnonlonfoun and Cholpon Ramizova:: Oh, thanks for having us. Thank you.
Dacher Keltner: Changing our habits takes work, and sometimes some support. If you want more support on your New Year’s resolution, join our free newsletter series: The Good Habits Challenge. Each week, we’ll send you a tip – all grounded in science – to help you succeed. There’s so much more useful science that we couldn’t fit in one episode, so I encourage you to check it out.
Visit G-G-S-C dot Berkeley dot E-D-U slash podcasts slash habits to learn more and sign up. That’s G-G-S-C dot Berkeley dot E-D-U slash podcasts slash habits. You can also find that link in our show notes.
Up next we hear from psychologist Katy Milkman about the science of creating new habits.
Katy Milkman: We actually think about our lives like we’re characters in a book and, when we close one chapter and open another, it makes us see time differently.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
We’re gonna break down some of the best practices for creating new habits that we got from Katy Milkman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
She shared that one pathway to successfully changing habits is to start in the New Year.
Katy Milkman: We actually think about our lives like we’re characters in a book and, and when we close one chapter and open another, it makes us see time differently. I feel more distinct and distant from who I was last year than I would if it were some equidistant point in the past, but in the same year.
Dacher Keltner: She calls it “The Fresh Start Effect.” And the New Year is a big one … but it works with other fresh starts, too – like a birthday, starting a new job — even just a Monday.
Katy Milkman: Well, that was the old me and this is the new me, and the new me’s gonna be different.” We have this uptick in motivation, and It gives us an opportunity to be more optimistic about the future and to set aside our past failures.
Dacher Keltner: Katy says that how we relate to our failures is really important when it comes to pursuing a goal.
Katy Milkman: It’s really common to have setbacks. In fact, if you’re setting goals correctly, what the research says is you shouldn’t be achieving all of them. ‘cause goals should stretch you. But that means you need to have a way to deal with the fact that you’re gonna be encountering some goal failure along the way.
Kristen Neff: When you’re kind, warm, supportive, present for yourself, you’re more motivated, you’re more able to reach your goals, you’re healthier, you’re happier.
Dacher Keltner: Kristen Neff is a leading expert on self-compassion, and we’ve had her on the show before to explain how to practice it:
Kristen Neff: First is mindfulness. We actually have to be aware that we’re struggling. Say something to yourself to acknowledge and validate that like, this is really difficult right now. You’re actually turning your attention towards the pain, acknowledging it, but also making some space for it.
Dacher Keltner: And treat yourself with kindness.
Kristen Neff: And one way to think of what to say is you may just consider, well, what if I had a really dear friend going through the exact same situation I’m going through? What would you say to your friend?
Dacher Keltner: Finally, remember that being human means we all make mistakes.
Kristen Neff: Logically we know this, but when we fail or we make a mistake. Illogically, we tend to think everyone else in the world is living a normal, perfect life, and it’s just me who’s failed. When we remember the truth, everyone makes mistakes. Then we don’t feel so all alone in our suffering. And that’s another real key reason why self-compassion is so linked to wellbeing.
Dacher Keltner: Practicing self-compassion has been shown to decrease our self-criticism, help us feel less isolated, depressed and anxious.
It also helps us grow.
Kristen Neff: It’s like, I’m okay as I am, but because I care. I want to learn. I want to grow. Actually, we just did a study with college level athletes. And we found that after learning self-compassion, their athletic performance actually improved as rated by their coaches. Because, again, when you have some way to deal with failure in a way that’s not so overwhelming, it keeps you going. And then that ability to learn actually helps you go farther in the long run.
Dacher Keltner: Next time on The Science of Happiness, we explore a practice shown to help us see more beauty in the everyday.
Rene Proyer: We wanted to see whether it is possible to encourage people to experience more beauty in their everyday life.
Darnell Mo Washington: I think beauty is anything that can touch your sensibility, touch your humanity. You know, to make you really just think about what’s going on with you. And maybe the privilege you have or the privilege you don’t have. But either one of them, there’s still beauty inside of it.
Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. Our executive producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound design is from Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios and our associate producer is Maarya Zafar. And our executive director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.