New Year's Day, when you stop to consider it, hasn't been very well thought through: the day traditionally assigned for the turning over of new leaves is also the day many of us are far more likely than usual to be waking up hungover, or at least seriously late, and generally without the energy for launching effortful new self-improvement projects. The gym's probably closed; new year resolutions rarely work out anyway; and besides, today marks the 30th anniversary of the achievement of self-government by the island nation of Palau, which is surely as good a reason as any to indulge in further alcohol-fuelled celebration. Then again, on some level, who doesn't want to be a bit happier, more productive and generally a better person? Allow us to suggest a few modest, down-to-earth, evidence-backed ideas for 2011 that might actually work…
Abandon your new year resolutions – today
If you've made any new year resolutions, steal a march on the rest of the world by abandoning them today, rather than waiting a week or two for the moment when everyone else's will inevitably collapse in a quagmire of failed hopes, self-reproach and packets of Pringles. The lure of making a "complete fresh start" can be hard to resist, and gleaming-eyed self-help gurus pander to that urge. In fact, aiming for across-the-board change – to get fitter, eat better, spend more time with the family and less time playing Angry Birds, all at the same time – is exactly the wrong way to change habits. Willpower is a unitary, depletable resource, which means investing energy in any one such goal will leave less remaining for the others, so your resolutions will, in effect, be fighting each other. Far better to aim for one new habit every couple of months or, better yet, to manipulate your surroundings so as to harness the power of inertia, so you needn't spend your precious reserves of willpower at all. (It's infinitely easier to watch less television when you don't have one, or to use your credit card less when it's locked in a cupboard.) Making things automatic, not consciously and continually striving hard to be better, is the key here, as Alfred North Whitehead recognised back in 1911: "It is a profoundly erroneous truism... that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing," he wrote. "The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
Stop looking for your soulmate
Relationship gurus expend enormous amounts of energy debating whether "opposites attract" or, conversely, whether "birds of a feather flock together" – largely, it seems, without stopping to reflect on whether relying on cheesy proverbs might be, more generally, a bad way to think about the complexities of human attraction. Should you look for a partner whose characteristics match yours, or complement yours? The conclusion of the Pair Project, a long-term study of married couples by the University of Texas, is… well, neither, really. "Compatibility", whether you think of it as similarity or complementarity, just doesn't seem to have much to do with a relationship's failure or success, according to the project's founder, Ted Huston: the happiness of a marriage just isn't much correlated with how many likes, dislikes or related characteristics a couple does or doesn't share. Compatibility does play one specific role in love, he argues: when couples start worrying about whether they're compatible, it's often the sign of a relationship in trouble. "We're just not compatible" really means, "We're not getting along." "Compatibility" just means things are working out. It simply renames the mystery of love, rather than explaining it.
According to the US psychologist Robert Epstein, that's because a successful relationship is almost entirely built from within. (He cites evidence from freely entered arranged marriages, arguing that they work out more frequently than the unarranged kind.) All that's really required is two people committed to giving things a shot. Spending years looking for someone with compatible qualities may be – to evoke another cheesy proverb – a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
Overhaul your information diet (but don't starve)
We've been worrying about information overload for millennia. "The abundance of books is distraction," complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it's swings and roundabouts). But it's been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet's defenders fight back. Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we've been talking in misleading generalities. "Technology" isn't good or bad for us, per se; neither is "the web". Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children's literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we're consuming online. The medium isn't the only message.
The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn't to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a "reward" in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you're most addicted to. Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn't the amount of time, but who's calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it's a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.
Self-improvement: track your personal data
It's been rather disorienting, over recent years, to be the kind of anally retentive geek who enjoys devising personal logbooks to record, say, how one uses one's time, or spends one's money: now everybody seems to be doing it. The "self-tracking" movement has been boosted enormously by iPhone apps and similar software that makes it easy to store and analyse personal data: see, for example, WaterWorks (for monitoring your water-drinking), FoodTrackerPro (which does what you'd imagine), the time-logging application TimeJot or the Zeo sleep-monitoring machine, which purports to tell you how much high-quality deep sleep you're racking up each night; the Looxcie is a tiny camera, worn on the ear like a Bluetooth headset, that will record video of your whole day, though goodness knows when you'll find the time to sift through it. For much more – arguably too much more – see The Quantified Self.
All this can be taken too far. But in moderation, the benefits are twofold. First, you can exploit the Hawthorne Effect – the way the mere fact of monitoring your behaviour can influence it to change in a positive direction. Second, you can analyse the data you collect to identify patterns you might otherwise never have noticed. Be prepared for a shock, though: you're almost certainly working much less, spending more and eating more poorly than you imagine. Approach personal data "with gentleness rather than judgment", advises Sierra Black at GetRichSlowly.org, or you're liable to throw in the towel to avoid confronting such truths. Remember, friends and colleagues who claim to work 12-hour days, never eat junk food or exercise for an hour a day almost certainly aren't being entirely accurate; they've just never tracked themselves properly.
Volunteer (even though David Cameron wants you to)
It's frequently tempting to ignore centuries-old advice on happiness in favour of cutting-edge research and clever new tricks. It's also tempting to resist doing things the coalition government wants you to do in order to help them cut government services. Yet all of this is unfair on volunteering, since the all but incontrovertible truth is that donating your time (and, to a lesser extent, your money) is one of the most reliable short cuts to happiness, reduced stress levels and enhanced physical health. Studies in the UK have shown correlations between high levels of "informal voluntary activity" and better health, higher GCSE grades and lower burglary levels; coupled with laboratory studies on the hormone oxytocin, which causes the "helper's high", it seems likely that volunteering helps cause all these benefits, rather than just occurring in the same places. The most dependable sources of happiness, as the Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar puts it, are those that lie at "the intersection of pleasure and meaning", and volunteering sits squarely at that crossroads.
Reject positive thinking
These are troubled times for the leading proponents of positive thinking (though presumably they're not feeling glum about it). The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich struck a chord, in her book Smile Or Die, when she argued that our current financial crises may be at least partly attributable to a blindly optimistic, failure-is-impossible ethos in the financial services industry. A Canadian study suggested positive affirmations – such as "I am a lovable person!" – actually have a negative effect on the moods of people with low self-esteem, who you might have thought would benefit from them the most. Meanwhile, the high-profile guru James Arthur Ray, a star of the movie version of The Secret, awaits trial on manslaughter charges in connection with the deaths of three participants in an October 2009 "sweat lodge" ceremony.
According to practitioners of the increasingly popular approach of "acceptance and commitment therapy", one of several philosophies opposed to conventional positive thinking, neither positive thinking nor negative thinking is a particularly useful goal: a better plan is to learn to fixate less on the whole matter of cultivating this or that mental state. That's reflected in the timeless and exceedingly effective anti-procrastination mantra that "motivation follows action", not the other way around. Wait until you feel like doing something, and you could be waiting for ever. "Inspiration is for amateurs," the artist Chuck Close is fond of saying. "I just get to work."
Make dinner, make furniture, make an effort
"The Ikea effect" seems an inappropriate name for the notion that we derive greater enjoyment from things we've worked harder to create. You can see the rationale of the researchers who coined it – there's a unique pleasure to successful self-assembly – but they'd clearly had only atypically trouble-free encounters with Billy bookshelves. Yet, more generally, this cognitive bias is now well-established, and provides another persuasive explanation for why great material wealth has such a small impact on happiness: the effortlessness of having everything fall into your lap is somehow fundamentally unsatisfying. The neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer argues that the same applies to making dinner, at least by analogy with experiments on mice, who develop long-standing preferences for snacks they've had to labour harder to obtain. Combine this with the argument made by Matt Crawford in his book The Case For Working With Your Hands, that an exclusive focus on intangible "knowledge work" leaves many of us feeling disconnected from reality, and you have a persuasive argument for doing more DIY, cooking more dinners and generally doing more making.
Don't take frugality too far
Being bombarded daily by messages of financial catastrophe probably makes it easier to save money and avoid self-sabotaging shopping splurges. But it's also an invitation to fall into the psychological trap known as "hyperopia", or the opposite of shortsightedness: the tendency to deny oneself present-moment pleasures to a degree one subsequently comes to regret. Experiments by the economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky show that people suffer short-term regret when they choose pleasure over work, but once a few years have passed, the situation flips: looking back over the years, people tend to feel far more regret at passed-up opportunities for pleasure, not work. Personal finance writers love to preach the benefits of cutting back on daily hedonistic expenditures – the overpriced latte, the breakfast croissant. But the most efficient way to save money, obviously, is to cut out big expenditures, not small ones. And if small pleasures deliver a reliable daily mood boost, they may be better value, in terms of their cost-to-happiness ratio, than more pricey occasional purchases such as gadgets or clothes. It's all too easy to mistake the daily feeling of self-denial for the idea that you're making significant savings, when in truth the two may not be closely related.
Befriend your friends' friends
High on the list of psychological insights that seem far too obvious to bother thinking deeply about is the phenomenon sociologists call "triadic closure": the way people tend to befriend the friends of their friends. There seems to be something especially satisfying about closing a friendship triad – when A and B, who are both already friends with C, become friends with each other. (Facebook's Friend Finder is mainly just a mechanism for achieving this.) One reason is simply the greater likelihood of overlapping interests. But as the happiness blogger Gretchen Rubin points out, there's an additional explanation: when you close a triad, you're helping to knit a dense social network in a way that doesn't happen with simpler friendship chains, where A is friends with B is friends with C is friends with D. "It's both energising and comforting to feel that you're building not just friendships, but a social network," she says. Moreover, friends of friends are much easier to meet in the first place, and maintaining the link requires less effort, since you're probably going to keep running into them anyway. If you want to rejuvenate your social life, then, consider keeping an eye out for triads. (Warning: not Triads.)
Creativity: make one small change to your workspace
Evidence continues to accumulate for a curious psychological effect that's either massively dispiriting or rather encouraging, depending on how you look at it: the way we're influenced to an extraordinary degree by subtle details of our surroundings we might never consciously notice. (In one experiment, the mere presence of a briefcase, a symbol of corporate life, in a roomful of participants caused people to behave more competitively and less cooperatively.) The downside of this, of course, is how much the current configuration of your home or office might be holding you back without your realising it. The upside is you can exploit the phenomenon. Even the slightest hint of greenery – even as computer wallpaper – appears to aid concentration. High ceilings are associated with abstract, unconstrained thinking, claim researchers at the University of Minnesota, lower ones with more focused tasks. So switch rooms when you need to, if you can. Or step outside. If you work from home, or otherwise have plenty of control over your office layout, consult the compelling if frequently envy-inducing blog From The Desk Of, where writers and artists reveal their workspaces.
Instead, or as well, consider working standing up. According to a rash of news reports last year, based on a handful of studies, too much sitting down is the single most unhealthy, and potentially life-shortening, activity in which most of us engage. Expensive standing desks are available; for instructions on building your own, see bit.ly/gSBwPv. Perhaps you'll become the next Philip Roth, who famously works at a lectern. It's true that Donald Rumsfeld did, too. But we really don't need to dwell on that.
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