Now that it’s December, the “best of” lists are rolling in and recognizing the year’s top contributions in music, movies, books, and other arenas. Meanwhile, many of us are thinking about all the things we want to change in the year ahead—lose weight, drink less, save more, and so on. But what if we applied the “best of” approach to our own years instead, reflecting back on our accomplishments, large or small, and the experiences we valued most?
Patting ourselves on the back like this may seem a bit self-indulgent, but in practice, it’s anything but. Research suggests that celebrating the good has value well beyond its self-esteem-boosting potential. Compared to focusing on perceived failures, focusing on what worked well can be a more inspiring launching point for change.
Support for this idea comes from research on small wins, a strategy for addressing social problems that has also been applied in business and health settings. The basic premise is that big goals can feel overwhelming and unattainable, leading us to either abandon them or pursue overly ambitious solutions that are unlikely to be successful.
Instead, when large goals are broken down into smaller, more manageable steps, success is more likely. An incremental approach is not only more pragmatic, but it feels good to reflect regularly on our progress, no matter how minor. Small wins boost confidence and self-efficacy, keeping the momentum going as we confront inevitable setbacks.
The positive emotions that come from celebrating success, such as joy, pride, interest, and contentment, are more than just ends in themselves; research on the broaden-and-build theory of position emotions has found that these emotions can broaden thinking in ways that improve creativity and problem-solving.
When we feel stressed and overwhelmed, our options can feel narrowed, with a focus on immediate survival—essentially a “fight-or-flight” mode. In truly threatening situations, this narrowing is adaptive, but in others, it can be limiting. Positive emotions, by contrast, free up cognitive resources and prompt us to explore a wider range of possibilities.
This celebratory approach can also improve relationships. Research on a process called capitalization finds that the more people share their successes with close others—and respond with enthusiasm and curiosity when others share theirs—the more satisfied they feel with the relationship. In one study, for example, couples who responded to one another’s triumphs in an “active-constructive” style involving positive emotions and supportive follow-up questions reported greater relationship well-being and were less likely to break up two months later.
So this New Year, instead of just asking yourself what you resolve to do better in 2020, start by reviewing the best parts of 2019—what brought you the most happiness? What made you most proud? In what ways did you challenge yourself? And how can you bring more of those things into your life in the year ahead?
Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Social support for positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 904-917.
Fredrickson B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American Psychologist, 56 (3), 218–226.
Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review, 89 (5), 70–80.