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5 Inspiring Ways to Start the New Year

5 Inspiring Ways to Start the New Year

Spiritual growth based on scientific research.

by

As Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, approaches, here are five ways to making real changes and get the new year off to a fresh start.

1. Amp up your expectations.

In 1965, teachers in a San Francisco elementary school were given lists of students who were likely to have amazing “growth spurts” in the coming year. A Harvard psychologist, Robert Rosenthal, had tested all of the children, and was able to inform their teachers which kids were likely to achieve great things in the coming months.

At the end of the year, the teachers’ experience tallied with Dr. Rosenthal’s: those students he predicted would have growth spurts did so, enjoying above-average intellectual success across the board in school.

What the teachers didn’t know was that the list of names they were given at the beginning of the year was entirely randomly-generated. There was no academic test; each teacher was given a list of arbitrary names. Yet the students’ growth was real. When teachers expected more from those students, the students delivered, increasing their performance in class. The IQs of those students identified as “Growth Spurters” also increased, measuring much higher after the academic year than at the beginning, and increasing significantly in relation to their peers.

This year, view yourself as a “Growth Spurter.” Give yourself the gift of believing in yourself and watch yourself grow into your higher expectations.

2. Break your routine.

When we learn new skills we use our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain in charge of deliberate, rational thought. (Think of learning to drive: first-time drivers don’t carry on conversations, for instance – all their attention is focused on what they’re doing.) Once we master a skill, however, it gets downgraded to our basal ganglia, a part of our brains that is associated with emotion and memory. (This is why driving is second nature to us, allowing us to talk or listen to the radio with one part of our brains while we use another to navigate a car.) Finally, our brains experience a third emotion: pleasure, when a habitual act is completed.

We tend to perform activities the same way each time when we’re in our usual environment. Changing our surroundings, however, breaks up the three-part loop that governs habits in our brains. When our usual cues and rewards are absent, it’s easier to change our behavior.

This year, consider ways to go someplace new – literally. Volunteering at a new place, joining a new community, reaching out to new people are all ways to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, escape our default ways of doing things, and give ourselves space to be someone new.

3. Evaluate your community.

The people we surround ourselves with are crucial to our own behavior.

In one recent study monitoring students who transferred to a new university, entrenched habits like reading the newspaper, exercising, and watching television were all altered; transfer students quickly conformed to the habits of their new community.

The people we surround ourselves with have profound effects on the way we do things and the decisions we make. Even our most intimate choices might be influenced by those in our wider community. One study found that being privy to the details of a friend’s divorce increased one’s own chances of getting divorced by 75% - even hearing about the divorce of a friend of a friend raised one’s own chances of divorce a shocking 33%.

Positive effects also flow from being part of a community. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel recognized the importance of community in shaping our goals and sense of self. He counseled his students: “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). We all are stronger when we reach out to others and share in a set of values and goals.

This year, take a look at your social connections. Ask yourself how you can spend time with those whose values and lifestyle you want to share. Consider strengthening your links to your local Jewish community, and allowing the support and connectedness of your community to enrich you as well.

4. Spend more time with loved ones.

Recent research shows that spending time with people who are dear to us profoundly affects our physical well-being. In one major study, physical wounds healed faster for people who had close, positive relationships in their lives. Another study found that people who feel they have close relationships are more productive at work.

In today’s hyper-busy world, it can feel next-to-impossible to carve out quality time to spend with those we care about. Fortunately, Jewish tradition provides a built-in opportunity for spending quality time with friends and family each week by slowing down and coming together over meals on Shabbat. Disconnecting from all our gadgets makes sure we spend quality face-to-face time at home. There’s even research to back up the benefits of these weekly meals: eating regular family meals together is associated with lower levels of stress for kids and adults. For children, eating a family meal is also connected to lower levels of drug abuse, higher grades, and better health.

5. Say thank you.

Saying thank you is one of the most powerful ways we can move beyond our old habits and transform our lives.

In a ground-breaking study a little over a decade ago, Dr. Robert Emmons of University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami asked one group to write in journals about their daily lives and another group to work through their problems and irritations in their writing. A third group was asked to focus on writing things they were grateful for.

At the end of the study, they found something remarkable: the participants who used their journals to record what they were thankful for reported markedly higher levels of happiness and well-being. Their entire demeanor was altered by the experiment. They displayed higher levels of energy, determination, alertness, attentiveness and enthusiasm. This translated into concrete action, as well. People who kept gratitude lists were more likely to make progress towards important goals.

It isn’t only writing down what we’re grateful for that can have this profound effect: the researchers also found that attending religious services, praying, and studying religion also creates a feeling of gratitude that can transform our lives.

September 13, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 8

(7) Dick Perlas, September 20, 2014 4:35 AM

The article is thought provoking. Will help me face life.

Thank you Ms. Miller for writing such as good article. Will read and read it until I will fully digest it and hopefully it will help me face a better life for the coming years.

L'shanah tovah and shabbath shalom!

Dick Perlas
Manila, Philippines

(6) Anonymous, September 17, 2014 6:20 PM

Excellent!

This is excellent and very very useful. Thank you so much for posting this!

(5) Anonymous, September 17, 2014 4:23 PM

Listening

Another idea that has totally gotten lost in this hysterically fast society, with people just looking out for themselves, or "what's in it for them," is the Art of Listening. It is so rare today to find a person who actually listens, without having to pay him of her. Someone who connects to what you are saying and furthermore validates your feelings. I cannot count how many times, I have spoken to someone, or even in a group, and suddenly, I am completely cut off, by someone speaking of a similar experience. The attention completely reverts away from me, and in addition the person will often disagree with my take of the experience. I become a persona non grata. It is as if I never said a thing. It leaves me feeling upset with that person or persons. It is so incredibly rude, that there are no words for it. These people, are for the most part, nice, decent people, who would probably help me at 3:00 in the morning, if I needed it. However, when it comes to just listening, they have no skills. I wonder if this dates back to childhood, when they may not have been heard as children, or is it just a facet of the selfish attitude that so permeates society today. Whatever it is, it greatly needs to be repaired, and all the new technology is actually going to render the Art of Listening obsolete. That is sad.

esther, September 21, 2014 7:11 AM

impressive comment

your appendage to the article, in its basic idea and in the details you described, were so right on the mark and well said, you could be writing an article yourself.

(4) Anonymous, September 14, 2014 4:59 PM

Thank You! :-)

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