As a college student, Katy Milkman played tennis and loved going to the gym. But when she started graduate school, her exercise routine started to flunk.
"At the end of a long day of classes, I was exhausted," Milkman says. "Frankly, the last thing I wanted to do was drag myself to the gym. What I really wanted to do was watch TV or read Harry Potter."
What got her back to regular workouts was something she calls "temptation bundling." She resolved to indulge in her love of wizard-lit only while at the gym, by listening to audiobooks with earbuds.
Milkman, now a professor at the Wharton School of Business who specializes in human decision-making, says that when it comes to making a behavioral change, the trick is to pair the thing you dread with something you love.
Looking for more tips like these to make your New Year's resolution stick? Whatever your goals, we have insights that can make it a little easier for you to achieve them. Here are six "life recipes" for good mental health from research that NPR reporters covered this year:
Feeling stressed? Just eight techniques — a "buffet of life skills" — can make a significant improvement in well-being, say scientists who taught the techniques to caregivers of people with dementia. After learning techniques such as how to keep a gratitude journal, for example, and how to quickly reframe negative experiences in a positive light — these family caregivers reported impressive decreases in both stress and anxiety.
Prepare to fail. It's part of succeeding
If you're trying to get a new routine to stick — whether it's getting more exercise, eating less sugar or learning to play the ukulele — scholars who study human behavior say the key is to accept failure as a part of the process. Expect that at some point you will mess up. And when that happens, don't give in to the "what-the-heck" effect — the feeling that since you've missed one session, your whole plan is a bust. Just get back to taking steps toward your goal, and don't beat yourself up.
Help an anxious partner the right way
You can support a partner who has an anxiety disorder without sinking yourself, say therapists: First, don't try to fix things immediately. Instead, acknowledge your loved one's perspective. "You can move to logic, but not before the person feels like they're not being judged and ... misunderstood," says licensed psychologist Carolyn Daitch. Learning how to gently maintain boundaries is important, too.
Feeling extra angry? Get checked out for depression
Many patients — and doctors — associate depression with feelings of hopelessness, sadness and lack of motivation. But a growing number of psychiatrists say depression is also behind some hypercritical tendencies and outbursts of anger. The good news: This sort of irritability is responsive to counseling and medication.
Redefine exercise: Move a little bit, often
Maria Godoy, one of NPR's editors, learned to love exercise when she realized every little bit counts. "I reframed what I thought of as exercise," she says. Vacuuming with gusto, taking the stairs — these little bursts of movement throughout the day add up, like pennies in a piggy bank.
Take a minute today to consider your life's purpose
Having a purpose in life seems to have a more powerful impact on decreasing a person's risk of premature death than exercising regularly, quitting smoking or curbing your alcohol intake, research suggests. Maybe you find greatest meaning in guarding the environment, raising good children, making music or touching lives through your volunteer work. It doesn't seem to matter what your life's purpose is, a growing body of research suggests. What matters is that you feel you have one.
Emily Vaughn is an intern on NPR's Science Desk.