Today, the world we live in provides us with endless opportunities.
Consequently, these countless paths can take us down roads that can all too easily, make or break our lives. This, along with the increasing prevalence of AI, leaves many of us faced with the looming question of purpose…what makes humans successful and happy despite different circumstances?
I’m Dr. Kendal Maxwell and I’m a practicing neuropsychologist, which means I study the connection between the human brain and its associated behaviors (in a wide variety of people with an even wider range of medical problems). When the COVID-19 pandemic began I became even more intrigued by human behavior as people’s everyday structure was torn away from them, and realized a revolutionary social experiment was occurring right in front of my eyes.
Not only was I watching how people’s habits were affecting them (both positively and negatively), I was also experiencing first hand my own, as I also began to struggle to keep myself together during a time of collective trauma.
With that being said, the first thing I did was take a deep dive into researching habits to help myself as well as my patients. How could I develop a physical, tangible tool to help others not only cope, but come out on the other side a better version of themselves? A self-guided habit journal was the answer. That is when I created 12 Months to Happier Habits, then called upon a brilliant and artistic friend of mine, Victoria Nicole Varela, to bring creative life to our project.
This journal helps get you back on track by eliminating negative habits and by helping you introduce new positive habits which allows you to show up as the best version of yourself. But what exactly are habits? Why do they have such a powerful and profound effect on our daily lives and even more so, our total existence?
A habit is a behavior that becomes automatic over time. Once a behavior becomes a habit, it involves less work for the brain and body to do it over any new task. From a brain perspective, our body is motivated by the release of neurotransmitters that make us feel good. These include dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin.
While there are many habits that can lead to increased success and happiness, I am going to focus on the top four that I feel impact these neurotransmitters the most and lead to a life where one would feel successful and happy despite what specifically they are doing otherwise.
Each and every day you should focus on 1 activity that makes you feel a sense of purpose. When we accomplish things, regardless of if they big or small, our serotonin (a chemical linked to feelings of confidence), increases. Additionally, after we accomplish a task we also have an increase in dopamine as we feel a sense internal or external reward. And purpose changes throughout our lives, which is an important thing to remember.
In our 20’s purpose may look like completing a homework assignment for a college course to further our career goals. In our 30’s it may look like feeding a child to help them survive, or building or fixing something for a home we just bought. Our 40’s and onward may look like volunteering or planning a trip with people we love, etc. Ask yourself each morning what is one thing you want to accomplish? Make it happen. Be present with the feeling of having accomplished this before you go to bed at night.
(*4*)“If we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.” – Tony Robbins
2. Be Willing to Move
There is countless research available proving that the brain and heart are incredibly connected. Taking care of the heart is vital for longevity of life as it inevitably impacts the brain and can reduce the likelihood of developing some form of future dementia. It could be walking 7 days a week for 40 minutes, engaging in high intensity interval training for 20 minutes 3 days a week, and/or incorporating yoga into your weekly routine (my personal favorite).
There are many options that have demonstrated themselves to be effective at leading to improvements in physical and mental health as we age. I also want to note that there are many ways to adapt exercise if you are physically limited, such as chair yoga or chair tai chi. (Victoria is a fan of bathtub stretching!) Additionally, exercise releases all 4 of those feel-good neurotransmitters mentioned above, making it the natural drug of choice for literally anyone.
To feel successful and happy as we go about our daily lives, we must be okay with being with ourselves, in our own body. Mindfulness meditation assists with this process. By sitting, laying down, or even engaging in walking meditation on a daily basis for 20-40 minutes, we naturally regulate our nervous system. Doing so reduces inflammation in both our body and brain, and releases dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.
Meditation increases our ability to attend to and focus on activities outside of meditation itself, leading us to be more successful at any task we take on. It also has been shown to improve overall mood. In individuals who have cognitive changes later in life, it has been shown to reduce the size of the amygdala so we react better to stress and fear.
4. Stay Connected to Others
Loneliness has been shown to be a risk factor for mortality in older adults. Additionally, when we think about successful ideas and the ability to make an idea become alive, it always involves multiple people working together. The human species thrives on feeling connected and doing so in healthy ways increases all four neurotransmitters! It should be a daily habit to push yourself to find a way to connect with someone. This may mean engaging in a group hobby, group goal, group volunteer opportunity, calling someone you love, etc.
There is even research that shows going to a place where other people are at even if you do not engage with them socially, such as a coffee shop, can be helpful for us on an emotional level.
Now that you have these four habits you can begin to implement them into your life. Sometimes it’s easier to start with 1 habit at a time for a month, so you don’t feel overwhelmed by this process. This is where 12 Months to Happier Habits can help you. Writing down the habit you want to increase, preparing your life to make room for it, and checking in with yourself on a weekly basis will lead you to be more successful with creating change.
I can’t wait to see the person you are truly meant to be when you make time for these habits in your life, as your best self is already within you and is just waiting for you to start the journey.