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The return of happiness: Your 2021 guide

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Usually a great source of snarky humor, the Urban Dictionary lists its top definition for 2020 as, "The worst year ever." Sadly, even the Urban Dictionary couldn't find creative inspiration from the horrors of 2020. Goodbye, 2020; you will not be missed.

Ironically, in 2020 we launched "The Art & Science of Happiness" at the University of Montana. Several people have sarcastically asked, "How'd that go?" Actually, it went surprisingly well. The pandemic hit and we shifted to Zoom, but I have no doubt that implementing science-based approaches to happiness helped the students (and me) weather the COVID-19 storm.

For many reasons, happiness feels even more important for 2021. Although 2021 offers new hope, our challenges related to the global pandemic are far from over. That's why, this year, the University of Montana happiness class is open to the public. Consider joining us to aggressively pursue personal and community happiness in 2021, maybe in the form of a New Year's resolution.

New Year's resolutions are a tradition. But for many people, New Year's resolutions don't last more than a week or two. In last year's happiness class, we learned why. Most people who make resolutions don't use good goal-setting and goal-attainment strategies. Instead, they rely on willpower. Although willpower is great, you're much more likely to sustain your resolutions if you use scientifically supported strategies. Several goal-attainment ideas from last year's happiness class follow.

Tweak Your Timing. Don't feel compelled to set goals on New Year's Day. Think about it. After a month of holiday prep and overeating, you flip the last page of the calendar, and decide to initiate big positive life changes. As an alternative, wait and contemplate. Maybe Groundhog's Day will make for a better start date.

Prepare. New habits require sturdy foundations. Let's say you decide to consume more vitamin-rich vegetables in 2021. Because you prefer drinking vegetables over eating vegetables, you'll need a machine to make smoothies and a steady supply of your favorite vegetables. If you don't do the prep, you won't achieve your resolution. Solid preparation is one way to make your resolution behavior easier.

Plan to Sustain Your Behavior. One happiness student wanted to develop a running habit. Her plan: She could only listen to her favorite music when running. The result: Her runs were more pleasant, more frequent and longer. The take-home message: Pair your new habit with things that provide simultaneous pleasure.

Create a Dopamine Rush. B. J. Fogg, a Stanford researcher, says you don't need endless repetition — or willpower — to establish new habits. He prescribes emotional connections. Top on his list: Immediately, reward yourself with a fist pump, high five or other celebrations. Let yourself feel the rush of small successes.

Setting resolutions and achieving goals contributes to happiness. But deeper happiness involves more than just personal achievement. The late Chris Peterson, a renowned psychologist, defined positive psychology as "the science of what makes life worth living." He also said, "If you don't want to listen to [my] long talk, I can tell you what positive psychology is all about in five seconds. Other people matter. Period. I'm done with my talk."

The bare minimum for attaining your New Year's resolutions and greater happiness in 2021 include good timing, reasonable goals, effective strategizing, and immediate celebration of tiny successes. But even more importantly, find ways to let others know how much they matter. Your happiness will increase — and likely, theirs will too.

John Sommers-Flanagan teaches at the University of Montana and is coauthor of nine books. His views are his own and don't necessarily represent the University of Montana. For more information on enrolling in his Art & Science of Happiness course, go to: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2020/12/19/the-return-of-the-happiness-course-take-2/.

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