Why setting intentions might be better than making New Year’s Resolutions

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Even before Christmas, social media channels were alive with thoughts of New Year’s Resolutions.

Review of the Year

Certainly, the period between Christmas and New Year is often a good point to kick back, reflect on the past 12 months and anticipate the year to come. And many of us consider the start of a new calendar year a good point to establish new habits, change old ones or strengthen our resolve to achieve particular goals.

Types of New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions tend to fall into a number of discrete categories. Some are about improving physical wellbeing (e.g. to eat more healthily, lose weight, take more exercise or quit smoking). Others are more career-oriented or are about relationships, spirituality or experiences. It’s no accident that post-Christmas advertising space is filled with advertisements for slimming programmes, diet foods or nicotine replacements. We’ve all seen them.

However, the majority of us who set New Year’s Resolutions find it difficult to keep them and, instead of sustaining success, we find that our ‘get up and go’ has soon got up and gone.

When New Year’s Resolutions don’t work

So, what’s to be done?

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while and I reckon there might be a different way. Instead of going all out on a concrete ‘all or nothing’ resolution, I wonder if setting an intention might be a gentler, kinder way to move towards a desired state?

For me, an intention suggests something fluid, dynamic and ongoing, whereas a resolution seems, to me, all or nothing.

Setting an intention

Setting an intention is deliberate, but rather than being a rigid absolute, it’s about moving towards a goal (continually and repeatedly). So, if you falter, you get right back onto whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

To reduce sugar

For me, I have a sweet tooth and, in theory, love the idea of quitting sugar as a New Year’s Resolution. The trouble is, this can be a very difficult thing to do when social situations throughout the year often revolve around food in the form of sweet treats (mince pie, anyone?).

Instead, I like the idea of setting an intention to reduce my overall sugar intake, rather than eliminating sugar as an absolute goal. So, yesterday, I experimented a little.

It was Boxing Day morning and we had stayed over at my parents’ home, following a lovely day together for Christmas Day. Mum offered croissants for breakfast but, instead of slathering mine with jam, I had a little butter on my pastry along with my decaff’ latte and enjoyed the naturally sweet taste and texture of this holiday treat.

Likewise, following our return home some hours later, we enjoyed a late lunch at The Almanack, one of Kenilworth’s best-loved and much-frequented gastropubs. Normally, I would have ordered dessert after my main course (I normally eschew a starter because they are too filling) but, instead, opted for an espresso macchiato as the ‘full stop’ to a very enjoyable meal. As you can tell, I’m not giving up coffee any time soon!

To get more exercise

Similarly, you might want to take more exercise, but would baulk at resolving to run 10 miles per week by the end of the month. Instead, set an intention to put on your trainers and step outside the door. You don’t have to wait until 1 January either. What happens after that is up to you, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Some people find it easier and more empowering to embark upon a new activity with someone who can act as an accountability partner. For others, thinking about their future self might be enough to motivate themselves towards a healthier, fitter self. Consider – honestly – what might work for you and set an intention to move towards this new goal.

Resolutions come with a health warning

Whatever we decide, we do need to be careful about the goals we pursue.

In the introduction to her book America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It For Real, Ruth Whippman cites a University of California, Berkeley study in which participants were asked to rate how highly they valued happiness as an explicit goal and also how happy they were with their lives.

As Whippman writes, the ones who rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition were less happy in their lives in general and were more likely to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.

This reminds me of Robert Lustig’s most recent book, which I wrote about here. Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness, says Lustig. It’s easy to conflate the two.

My intentions for 2018

So, I’m going to set my intentions around moving towards a small number of achievable goals, rather than proclaiming a New Year’s Resolution on 1 January 2018. Indeed, I like the idea of experimenting and I might well enjoy a few simple living experiments in the coming year.

But don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple. As Leo Babauta says, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” That might help us stay focussed on what’s important.

Happy New Year!


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Do you know the difference between pleasure and happiness?

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Do you understand the difference between pleasure and happiness? Can you explain how reward differs from contentment? Robert Lustig certainly can and his latest book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science behind the Corporate Takeover of our Bodies and Brains, has something powerful to say about happiness and wellbeing.

About Robert Lustig

Robert Lustig MD is perhaps best known for his bestseller, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease.

These are not minimalist book titles!

Lustig is a professor of paediatrics, as well as being chief science officer of EatREAL, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to reversing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. His latest work argues that the corporate world has manipulated us specifically to get us to buy junk we don’t need. It’s an argument you may have come across before, but here we are offered the science behind the message.

We have been ‘manipulated’

Lustig argues that business has conflated pleasure with happiness and “with clear-cut intent” to get us to engage with behaviours that result in society feeling, “…fat, sick, stupid, broke, addicted, depressed and most decidedly unhappy.”

Recognise that rush of pleasure when you:

  • bite into something super sweet and delicious?
  • purchase something shiny and new?
  • see a notification on your smartphone?

That rush is one of dopamine, bringing fleeting reward or pleasure, but this is only ever short-lived and ends up with you wanting more. These things are genuinely addictive.

There is another way

By contrast, Lustig argues that the ‘happy chemical’, serotonin, provides longer-term contentment. He explains the difference between the dopamine effect, which creates, “That feels good. I want more.” versus the seratonin effect that brings about a sense of, “That feels good. I have enough.”

As Lustig says, it’s about understanding the difference between chasing fleeting reward and longer-lasting contentment.

How do we achieve this?

With clear scientific evidence to back up his argument, Lustig argues that real contentment is to be found through his 4 C’s, which increase serotonin in the brain to promote well-being. 

They are:

  • Connect
  • Contribute
  • Cope
  • Cook

I’ll use these themes as categories on future blog posts, so be sure to look out for them.

What it means in practice

Connect

Actively participate in actual social interactions. Social engagement or emotional bonding correlates with contentment, says Lustig.

Facebook (by way of an example) does not count here. Lustig explains the more people use Facebook, the less “subjective well-being” they experience. Just as a diet of processed food fails to support our well-being, so our daily “digital diet” is also doing us harm.

Contribute

By contributing to society (perhaps through work, volunteering or other activities), this (again) increases contentment through feelings of self-worth. Ever read stories of people who gave up their Christmas Day to help at a shelter for the homeless? These volunteers’ feelings of well-being can be directly attributed to the feel-good factor associated with contribution.

Cope

This is mega important. Sleep better, be more mindful, exercise more. These coping strategies are essential to our well-being.

Simply:

  • Get your 8 hours
  • Don’t multi-task
  • Be more mindful or intentional in how you approach your day-to-day activities
  • Take exercise

Cook

The JERF (Just Eat Real Food) message has been around for a while but Lustig makes a particular case for cooking for ourselves, for our friends and for our families. If we do this, we’ll not only be eating foods that can boost that happy chemical, serotonin, but we’ll also be contributing and connecting as well. And sugar is a no no. Period.

All together now

Taken together, these 4 C’s provide the essential support we need to move away from transient moments of reward (pleasure) to a more contented state (happiness).

As a minimalist, reading this book gave me an insight into why we know – instinctively – that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. When it comes to more, it’s more of the 4 C’s we really need.

Lustig’s work is based on solid science; it’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever battled with overcoming negative habits or been concerned that your time spent on social media isn’t adding to your subjective well-being, this book explains why.


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Just 5 ingredients for perfect minimalist recipes

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I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of Robert Lustig’s book, The Hacking of the American Mind, in which he considers the difference between pleasure and happiness through a focus on four C’s: connection, contribution, coping (strategies) and (unexpectedly) cooking!

These interesting themes are ones that writers such as Jonathan Fields and Brené Brown also emphasize in their work.

Throughout the work of these writers, the idea of connection is particularly prevalent, as are other c’s such as compassion and courage. I wonder why they all begin with ‘c’?

I’ll come back to these in future posts, but I want to focus today on one particular ‘c’. It’s a favourite of mine: cooking! And it’s something that brings me both pleasure and happiness.

Cooking the minimalist way

I’ve written before about meal planning and you already know that I’m a big fan of The Happy Pear, as I wrote about here. However, there’s a lot to be said for simplifying not only how you cook, but what you cook.

Dana Shulz from Minimalist Baker offers a simple approach to recipe planning: 10 ingredients or less; one bowl or 30 minutes or less to prepare. Her innovative recipes are great if you’re looking for plant-based inspiration and many of her creations are ‘special diet’ friendly.

What if you’re not a foodie?

One of the things about embracing a minimalist lifestyle is that you may not want to spend a great deal of time in the kitchen. If it doesn’t add value to your life, you’re not going to want to devote precious minutes to this activity.

For some of us, including myself, it’s fun to try new recipes, so cooking becomes a form of enjoyment and relaxation in itself. For others, food = fuel, so time spent weighing, chopping, stirring and baking (then waiting for the food to appear on the table) ideally needs to be minimised. But how can we do this without compromising on quality?

For me, the answer came from an unexpected source.

Jamie’s 5 Ingredients

Celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, who is not known for brevity when it comes to his lists of ingredients, has recently published a book that I think is worth a mention.

Jamie’s 5 Ingredients offers a new twist on a old theme: combine just 5 items to make a delicious meal with, “maximum flavour… minimum fuss.”

Do you:

  • Aspire to eat well, but don’t want to be tied to the kitchen?
  • Love flavours and textures that go together?
  • Want to eat well-balanced and nutritious food?

If the answer is ‘yes’, then I think this book is worth a closer look.

While myriad similar books already exist (I once owned a copy of James Tanner’s Take 5 Ingredients), this collection seems to embrace the current culinary zeitgeist: fresh ingredients, tasty combinations and easy (but quick) ways to get food on the table.

Classic combos

There are some things in life that go beautifully together. In terms of food, think leek and potato, cheese and tomato, maple and pecan, coffee and walnut…

This book offers tried and tested recipes including:

  • Lemon/courgettes/mint/Parmesan/pasta (=lemony courgette linguine)
  • Salmon/coriander/ginger/lemongrass/chilli jam (=fishcakes)
  • Pancetta/mushrooms/eggs/cheddar/rocket (=mushroom frittata)

Jamie Oliver’s tasty recipes draw on these classic combinations to offer everyone the chance to cook from scratch without the whole business taking up a whole evening or hours on end.

Find out more

If you’re looking for some new recipe inspiration, check out the book if you’re in the UK here. Or if the .com version is for you, look here.

And, no, I don’t have any vested interest in this. What interests me is this: minimising that which doesn’t add value and maximising what does.

Do you enjoy pared-down recipes? What’s your trick for eating well but simply? I’d love to know! Share your answer by replying below.


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