6 New Ideas From Psychology to Inspire Us in 2021

Tips for starting your year on the right foot.

Posted Jan 06, 2021

Ankita_Gkd / Pixabay
Source: Ankita_Gkd / Pixabay

2020 was an unusually stressful year, to say the least. As we gear up for another trip around the sun, here are six insights from the world of psychology to help you meet 2021 with a renewed sense of energy and an invigorated state of mind.

1. You weren’t (necessarily) happier when you were younger.

The start of a new year can evoke feelings of aging and loss. But there’s an easy way to reframe this negative attitude: Assume that you will be happier in the next year than in the last. In fact, there’s a good amount of scientific research to back this up. Recent research published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found optimism to be lowest in people's 20s, then to rise steadily into our 30s and 40s, peaking in the 50s, and gradually declining after that. Specifically, it was at age 55 that people experienced the highest levels of optimism.

Another study found that life satisfaction showed little decline across the lifespan and, in some cases, it actually went up. For instance, the researchers found that in the Anglo world (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), life satisfaction tends to improve with age. They also found that both marriage and employment are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction across the lifespan.

2. When it comes to relationships, commitment is key.

We’ve all seen good and bad relationships. Perhaps some of us have experienced both.

What is the magic combination of factors that makes a relationship flourish? A team of scientists led by Samantha Joel of Western University in Canada found that people who held a steadfast belief that their partner was committed to the relationship were most likely to report being in a flourishing relationship. Interestingly, commitment mattered more to the quality of a relationship than passion, support, affection, and sexual frequency.

3. It’s in our nature to see the best in people.

The human mind is incredibly good at filling in the gaps of perception. It's how we perceive movement from a series of cascading images, and how we see three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional surfaces.

What about when it comes to gauging the physical appearance of others? A recent paper appearing in the journal Nature suggests that our minds instinctively err on the side of beauty. A team of psychologists led by Diana Orghian of the University of Lisbon found that incomplete photographs were judged to be significantly more attractive than complete photographs.

“Under information shortage, people are positively biased when judging others’ facial attractiveness,” say the authors. “This suggests that people fill in the missing information with optimistic inferences.”

4. Don’t just set goals, set the right goals.

Psychologists will tell you there’s a big difference between setting goals and setting the right goals. How do you know if you are setting the right goals? New research suggests that the following scale can help. Rate, on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) how well each of the following five reasons explains why you want to achieve the goals you do:

  1. Because somebody else wants me to, or because I’ll get something from someone if I do.
  2. Because I would feel ashamed if I didn’t.
  3. Because I really believe it is an important goal to have.
  4. Because of the fun and enjoyment which the goal will provide me.
  5. Because it represents who I am and reflects what I value most in life.

If you felt like questions 3 through 5 described your goals, it's likely that you are on the right track. If you felt that questions 1 and 2 applied better to your situation, then you might want to change course. This is because reasons 3-5 indicate that you are intrinsically and self-concordantly motivated to pursue a goal while reasons 1 and 2 point to extrinsic or non-concordant motivation.

“When people pursue goals that are aligned with their underlying values, talents, interests, and needs (i.e., self-concordant goals), they are more likely to attain their goals,” state the authors of the research, led by Aidan Smyth of Carleton University in Canada. “Pursuing and attaining self-concordant goals affords experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are essential to well-being. Conversely, pursuing non-concordant goals can lead people to waste time and energy on goals that, even if attained, will not benefit their well-being or development.”

5. Be open, be positive, be straightforward.

There are hundreds if not thousands of traits psychologists use to describe someone’s personality. A person can be gentle, nervous, modest, or conscientious. Someone can be demanding, independent, vain, or risk-taking.

Which traits are most likely to be found in psychologically “healthy” individuals? A team of researchers led by Weibke Bleidorn of the University of California, Davis attempted to answer this question in a recent paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They found that high levels of openness to feelings, positive emotions, and straightforwardness were most indicative of a healthy personality. Conversely, hostility, vulnerability, and anxiousness were least likely to be found in well-adjusted individuals.

6. You can be mindful and ambitious at the same time.

Mindfulness, or the ability to exist in the present moment in a sustained and non-judgmental way, has been shown to have numerous health benefits. Mindful individuals exhibit reduced stress levels, have better focus, and are less emotionally reactive.

But what does it mean to be a mindful person? New research appearing in the journal Consulting Psychology found that ambitious personalities — that is, people who are socially self-confident, competitive, leaderlike, and energetic — tend to be more mindful. While this may seem counterintuitive, the researchers offer a good explanation for it. They theorize that ambitious individuals have learned to be effective at balancing their attention and awareness to achieve their goals. In other words, the mental focus necessary to be an ambitious person translates into many of the same qualities associated with mindfulness. 

Moreover, the researchers take a positive view of ambition. They write, “Behaviors relevant to both ambition and mindfulness are often described positively — being “in the zone,” “Zen-like,” and generally being both attentive and aware.”

Conclusion: Psychological research is full of wisdom that can help you live a happier life. This year, try to:

  1. Remember that things will get better with time.
  2. Stay committed to the relationships you value most.
  3. Try to see the best in people.
  4. Set goals that reflect who you are as a person.
  5. Be open, positive, and straightforward.
  6. Be mindful and ambitious.

Who knows what new doors may open if you do.

Facebook image: mariyaermolaeva/Shutterstock