All In Your Head: Taking Inventory

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The “All In Your Head” column should be dishing advice on the five best ways to make and keep New Year’s resolutions. But, no—by my own count there are over 50 of those in print right now, plus a deluge of television and radio experts determined to give us no breaks from a stream of strategies to create change in our lives.  But who says we want or even need to change?

Even people whose interests lie far from the field of psychology may have heard of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”  The Hierarchy describes the needs of mankind in a pyramid shaped diagram, including basic physiologic (food, air, shelter), safety (protection from abuse or external harm), love and belonging ( family, friends, group), and up the ladder to esteem (how do we feel good about ourselves?) and self-actualization (“what a man can be, he must be.”).

Abraham Maslow and a large group of other well-known psychologists were part of a movement in the twentieth century known as Positive Psychology, a field which studies the state of happiness in human beings, focusing on more than only pathological states.

One of the most important findings from the research shows that change occurs more readily when an individual is already happy. So, take New Year’s resolutions—in order for a new change to successfully take root, the chances increase greatly when a person gets a little bit happier first. We don’t get happy because we are successful at something. We get successful at something because we are happy.

With that in mind, I suggest to my patients that they assess the year just ending before deciding on something they want to change about themselves. We don’t know if change is required unless we take a careful assessment. For those whose self-talk is habitually negative and critical, there is an unrealistic list of stuff that seems to need changing; while at the other end of the spectrum, some can be a little clueless about those small tune ups that make a big difference.

The Thing I Feel Most Proud Of In The Past Year

Take a few minutes, sit quietly with pen and paper, and write down your victories from last year: the time you didn’t honk or make a hand gesture at the guy who cut you off in traffic, or the time your wife seemed to be provoking a fight but you embraced her and told her you love her rather than engaging angrily. Think of the times you expressed gratitude, either in words or even just in thought.

Times I Enjoyed Most In The Past Year

You enjoyed time away on vacation, times with family or friends or lover—or time spent alone with yourself.  It may have been the completion of something hard to do:  a work assignment, running a mile. Experiences of beauty– music played at a symphony or concert, a film that made you pause or caused some tears. Moments in life that enrich us stand out in our memories and add to a state of positive emotions outnumbering bad ones.

People I Got to Spend Time With In 2012

Enduring friendships and old ones—both add to our happiness. Think of the occasions when you made time for people you love. Maybe you joined a group: people who arrive daily at the same time at your coffee shop, an exercise group at the gym, a church, a support group, a book club, a committee at work.  It’s estimated that when we join groups with people we enjoy, that our happiness increases by an amount equal to or more than that of acquiring more money.

The One Thing I Regret That I Did Not Do In 2012

They say we regret things we didn’t try. The way you divvy up your time—or, as the Corporate’s say, “work-life balance”–did you miss out on something you value? Were you scared to say something you wish you had said? Think of only ONE thing—this isn’t one of those self-inventories where you come up feeling like you failed at something. R   ather, it’s a way to look hard into the corners just to check and see if there’s one little thing you forgot this year that might be a seed of regret in the coming months.

I am getting dangerously close to doing what I said I wouldn’t do–talk about resolutions. After you do your 2012 inventory, mull it over for at least a day or so.  If there’s something you see you’d like to do differently, begin to create a picture of how that one thing should look next year at this time.  How do you want to look back on that mental picture next year? Then, with that visualization in mind, write it down someplace, put it away (memo in i-phone will remind you where!) and come back to it in another 365 days.  I promse that you’ll be surprised at how closely the future picture matches what you did during 2013.

Happy New Year!

Ruth Wimsatt is a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach and can be reached at [email protected]

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