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7 tips for keeping your New Year's resolutions

G.K. Chesterton said it best. "There is one thing which gives radiance to everything," he wrote. "It is the idea of something around the corner."

Or, as Sonja Lyubomirsky writes in her book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, "find a happy person, and you will find a project."

New Year's resolutions are good things to have, in other words. Having a goal makes people happy, studies show, because it gives them a sense of purpose; a feeling of control over their lives; a boost in self-esteem; a structure. And often, the pursuit of it involves engagement of others, which boosts social connections. (Think about those daily conversations with your diet buddy.)

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Which is all great - provided you can keep those goals. What happens when you give in to that onslaught of marketing in the next week encouraging you to Be Better! Look Good! Lose Weight! and you fork over the dough for a join-now-and-save fitness club membership only to admit, one month in, that you've been once and will likely never go again. You feel like a loser, right?

Social scientists (and others) have come to the rescue. There's research on the kind of goals that are more successfully attained. And of course, there are other kinds of tips for keeping resolutions, too, some sillier than others.

Have a past-life regression to know your subconscious patterns

Let's start with the silly. Or is it? Georgina Cannon, founder of the Ontario Hypnosis Centre in Toronto and a trained hypnotist for 16 years, has helped many people set goals and keep them. At the root of our inability to make sustainable change in our lives is the fact that we live in patterns: "Eighty per cent of what you do today is what you did yesterday," she says. "It's everything from which side of the bed you wake up on, to how you walk, how you hold your cup of coffee, how you talk to other people, how you react to certain things. That pattern becomes a trance. It's the blueprint of the subconscious mind."

The only way to break those patterns is to tap into the subconscious mind, which knows everything, apparently. One of the best methods is to undergo a past-life regression through hypnosis, she believes. You may find that you were a victim in past lives, made to feel that the world will never give you what you want, and you have carried that mindset around with you and allowed it to sabotage your desire to achieve your goal. It's your past-life pattern. By bringing it to the conscious mind, you can defuse its power.

Resist the impulse to bypass the whole resolution season

It may be tempting to think that you should just be happy with where you are in life. You should stop making to-do lists. "We are human beings, not human doings," one non-resolution-making friend often says. As you age, that temptation may be even greater. You have learned to live with yourself and your spare tire and your mediocre job and your penchant for French fries, so why bother trying to change?

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Behavioural scientists say that strategy isn't good. It's clear that pursuing goals brings greater happiness than abandoning them. One solution is to make age-appropriate goals. Young people tend to have goals around acquiring knowledge and experiencing novelty. Older people are more concerned with emotionally meaningful goals.

So think of your goal-setting in the same way you do age-appropriate clothing. You may want to wear that slinky mini-dress, but will you just look like mutton dressed as lamb? Ditto the desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Will it make you happy or simply ruin your back?

You may be better off resolving to see more of your friends this year.

Accept the Sisyphean nature of goal-setting and goal-failing

It's life, baby. It's all about striving. And there's a silver lining. Studies show that the process of working toward a goal, taking part in a pursuit you find challenging and meaningful, is more important to a sense of well-being than attaining said goal.

Another sobering thought: Consider that for many people who achieve a big goal, the initial thrill is often followed by a letdown that can be crippling. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the mega-bestseller, eat pray love, once told me that she found it very difficult to write a follow-up, fearing that her best work was already behind her.

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Don't let the culture (or your mother) dictate your goals

Goals need to be intrinsic; meaningful to you. Extrinsic goals are those which other people foist upon you. You are more likely to invest in personal goals, say the experts, in large part because they satisfy basic psychological needs such as wanting to be autonomous.

On the other hand, be practical, too

Things like "enjoy work more" may not be intrinsic but they are realistic. In The How of Happiness, Prof. Lyubomirsky, who teaches psychology at the University of California, recommends that people reframe their thinking about such practical goals. Keep a diary on ways your work helps others or makes the world a better place. It can be as simple as noting that you comforted a co-worker; that you made a room (or your cubicle!) more beautiful; or even that you made a kind gesture in your neighbourhood. Goals that are laced with a larger purpose have a better chance of succeeding.

Focus on doing, not avoiding

Go figure. Scientists have discovered it's better to make a goal to, say, have great sex with your partner rather than resolving to avoid fights.

Start a blog

Robyn Okrant wrote the book Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk. She hated the project at first. Living by Oprah's rules, such as eating turkey burgers, making do without paper towels and wearing leopard-print flats, went against her grain as an independent thinker. But she was blogging about it. She had to do it. And what do you know? "Half way through it wasn't so difficult. The changes had become habits," she said in an interview.

Here's a thought. Start a blogging project about keeping your New Year's resolutions. Who knows? You may even get a book deal.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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