Happiness Doesn’t Require Breaking Down Big Goals. Here’s the Life-Changing Alternative

You can tackle gigantic objectives, but that’s not the only way to create a new, better you.

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BY Wanda Thibodeaux - 07 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Anyone at any level of business probably has accepted that the ability to adapt and survival are somewhat synonymous. And although you might associate change with the New Year, there's no reason to wait to take action--every season brings new opportunities for response.


In this context, in 52 Small Changes:One Year to a Happier, Healthier You, author and wellness coach Brett Blumenthal proposes making one simple modification to your life each week. Examples of changes Blumenthal recommends include creating and maintaining a budget, drinking more water or taking up a hobby. Your unique circumstances might mean you swap out some of the recommendations in the book for your own objectives. But the main concept is that, by following this protocol, at the end of one year, you'll have changed dozens of areas of your life.


Why take Blumenthal's approach?


When most people talk about change, they talk about vertical shift--that is, they focus on huge goals, recommending that you break those goals down into smaller steps or levels. Here, you're like a specialized athlete jumping higher and higher hurdles as you gain strength. Experts recommend this approach in part because, psychologically, a smaller job doesn't seem so scary or overwhelming. Scientifically, researchers also know that your brain will release dopamine in anticipation of reward. The more parts you break the objective into, the more times this release happens, and the happier and more motivated you'll be to keep moving forward despite challenges. Dopamine also plays a role in stimulating creativity and vise versa, so tackling many small goals even can help you think outside the box.


But here's the thing. Psychologically, the confidence you get from completing a small task doesn't have to transfer vertically. It can transfer horizontally, too. In this case, you're more like a generalized athlete who moves to the basic bench press or sprint after mastering basic jump rope. For example, if you manage to pack your own lunches for a week, that successful experience and positive emotional recall can encourage you to make your bed in the morning or say hello to someone new each day on the bus. And scientifically, your brain doesn't care if the tasks you're completing are related or not. As long as it senses there's a reward of some kind available, you'll get the dopamine hit that boosts your mood, curiosity and innovation. That's why you can feel so energized as you work through a to-do list where the jobs have nothing to do with each other. And in fact, a study from USC's Marshall School of Business found that people were more motivated when their rewards were separated into categories.


The traditional, horizontal approach to change is totally valid when you've figured out a big dream to work for. But if all you have is this nagging feeling that you're stuck and don't like where you are, you don't have to sit in stagnancy. Take Blumenthal's approach, targeting many small goals, to keep your mood and motivation up until you figure out the direction you'll ultimately follow.