Compassion Matters

How to save a life

A New Year’s Resolution Worth Making

What thinking of others can do for us

Setting goals for ourselves is an essential step to a fulfilling life. Yet, New Year’s resolutions tend to have a bad rep. Why is this? For one thing, they have a sort of ceremonious way of setting us up for failure. The build-up to another year and a fresh start gives us new hope for a better version of ourselves. However, what we often find is that soon into our calendars, we run into the same self-doubt, self-defenses and “critical inner voices” that have long created barriers to achieving our goals.

Sometimes these inner enemy forces win, persuading us to slip up, then punishing us for failing once again. “Just stay in bed a little longer,” it will echo in our heads. “The gym can wait.” Then, as soon as we hit the snooze button, it starts in on us with thoughts like, “You never do anything you say you will. You’ll never be in shape. You’re so unattractive. Why can’t you just fix this?” The problem with resolutions is that they tend to be fueled by this inner critic. They’re centered on “fixing” ourselves and not in a positive sense.

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Instead of this annual invitation to feel bad about ourselves, this year, I’ve decided to offer up a challenge. Let’s stop making our resolutions about us – not directly anyway. Let’s stop buying into the notion that we need to be fixed. Instead, let’s resolve to do the one thing that’s been scientifically proven to make us happier, more fulfilled individuals – let’s shift our focus outward and become more generous.

This may sound like an obvious or overly generalized statement, but there are many unique benefits of generosity that are not only better for our world but better for us. For one thing, it improves our physical health. A new study shows that people who live a life of “purpose or meaning” have low levels of cellular inflammation. Inflammation is linked with cancer and other diseases. The Association for Psychological Sciences reported on this correlation, defining a life of meaning and purpose as “focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning.” Another study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine reported that people with chronic cardiovascular disease (CVD) who spent time helping others had lower odds of experiencing a new CVD event or dying within two years. These individuals also experienced fewer depressive symptoms.

With considerable mental and physical rewards, it’s important to find ways to incorporate generosity into our lives. First, we should note that generosity is not about giving things. It’s about being giving of ourselves. It’s about shifting our focus outward, which also helps us to concentrate on the positive in situations. The more interactions we have with the people around us, the less likely we are to indulge and fester in our own complaints and frustrations. So what are some of the ways we can live outside our heads and turn our attentions to others?

First, we can exercise small acts of kindness. It’s all too easy to get caught up in our routines, to feel that daily annoyance at the line at the coffee shop or the crowd making us late. Small acts like holding the door open for someone can alleviate this frustration and completely change our mood. When out in public, we can take time to put down our devices and make eye contact with the people we interact with. Smiling at someone, for example, has the power to alter their entire day.

Next, we should always make sure to acknowledge people who do things for us. From the waiter serving our coffee to the co-worker collaborating on a project, there are countless people who offer us something in ways large and small. Expressing our appreciation to these people allows us to feel more attuned and connected to the people around us as well as to our own feelings of appreciation and happiness. Saying a sincere “thank you” makes us take pause. It reminds us to live in the moment and place value on the little things in life that, in actuality, take up the majority of our time.

Lastly, volunteering is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Though we make the excuse that it’s something we don’t have time for, it’s better to think of it as the only thing that we really have time for. Volunteering is a proactive way to counter our inner critic by giving us a feeling of value and purpose. Plus, it further encourages us to live outside the confines of our own minds, helping us to feel more in touch with the world around us, while heightening our awareness and appreciation. When volunteering, people who’ve been prone to depression often stop feeling as depressed.

When we make a concentrated effort to refocus our attentions outward, we’ll find that we get a different response from people. We start to experience real joy in our days, because people get a lot more joy out of giving than getting. The resolution to be more generous can be fulfilled in countless ways – in acts as small as smiling at a stranger or as big as volunteering at a local shelter. What we will find is that these little shifts will actually change our entire world, because when we become more generous with ourselves, people respond to us differently. Our lives improve, and we start to achieve some of those bigger goals on our list. We open ourselves up to new possibilities, to love, friendship, compassion, connection and achievement.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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