As is a common tradition in the United States, as well as many other places around the world, countless individuals look to the new year as a means to flush out the negative energies or bad practices they may have had in their lives the previous year. Others may seek to continue strongly their positive pursuit of happiness. This begs us to ask a least a few questions of ourselves: How do we as individuals define our own happiness? What is true happiness? And is it even possible to achieve? Let’s discuss.

American and pop culture teach us to put material wealth at the forefront of our desires and ambitions. Day after day after day, we see commercials on television showing the new, flashy car or the luxury watch that we need to have. We’re told that by obtaining these material goods, that our social status in society will be greatly improved. It’s important to distinguish between pleasure and true, sustainable prosperity. Getting that next text message from a love interest makes us feel good. Buying that new sports car makes us feel good. When we receive this positive reinforcement, our brains release the chemical dopamine, which takes us to a place of sheer joy. However, like any effect of a drug, it wears off and we long for more and more and more. Is that sustainable? Oftentimes, it isn’t.

So, how can we channel our energies and desires in a direction to actually improve our overall happiness? The answer may be self-improvement. For example, taking an interest in and learning a new instrument not only can give you a feeling of worthiness and happiness, it can give you a feeling of fulfillment. Playing an instrument is something that will stay with you. Unlike that fancy, new sports car that rusts and depreciates over time, it’s something that’s sustainable.

Perhaps one of your resolutions is to quit smoking. According to a 2000 study, it was found that cigarette manufacturers increased their advertising in January and February. Sabotage is actually one of the biggest threats to having your resolutions fail. Besides advertisers, another threat to resolutions, however unintentional it may seem, is family members. For example, if one of your resolutions is to lose weight in the new year, having a batch of freshly baked cookies resting on the kitchen counter is, at the very least, unhelpful.

There are steps we can take to assist ourselves in ensuring our resolutions do not fall by the wayside. Those steps are: reduce, implement, and celebrate. We need to make sure that our resolutions are small and manageable. Implement a plan of action that we can confidently stick to. Again, it’s important to be mindful of remaining focused on a small goal. Finally, we should reward ourselves when we accomplish something, even if it’s by doing something small for ourselves.

Every year, we as Americans partake in this tradition of self-improvement. In order to ensure we remain on track, let’s make sure we remain grateful. What do I mean? Well, take at least 15 minutes and jot down what you are grateful for. Update the list weekly by adding an additional two items. If you feel you’re a sharper thinker when you’re outside, go for a walk and contemplate this important list that way.

This pandemic has certainly upended many of our lives. Let’s take a step back and refocus our attentions on what we can control versus what is out of our hands.