Some of it has to do with how we execute a habit – getting support from friends, giving ourselves breaks when we need them, and building on momentum. But some of it happens way before that: when we feel compelled to form a habit in the first place.
In The How of Happiness, psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky offers a test to help determine which happiness habits are best for you. For optimum fit, a habit should have these characteristics:
- Natural: It feels normal, and easy to stick to. Maybe it’s a habit we’re already doing most days, like going for an after-dinner walk or brushing our teeth in the morning.
- Enjoyable: We find it interesting and challenging, like learning a new language.
- Valuable: We believe it’s important and identify with it. We’ll do it even if it’s not enjoyable. Exercise might fall into this category for some people.
Ideally, a habit shouldn’t have these characteristics:
- Guilt: We force ourselves to do it because we feel guilty, anxious, or ashamed if we don’t. For example, some people might do volunteer work because they feel guilty about their privilege or new money.
- Situational: We’re forced to do it by someone else or by our situation. Maybe our spouse is making us attend counseling or pressuring us to do a weight-loss program.
In the end, Lyubomirsky explains, these five aspects are largely measuring something called “self-determined motivation,” a drive to achieve goals based on our genuine interests and values.
“Research suggests that if you have this kind of motivation . . . you will continue to put effort into the endeavor and be ultimately more likely to succeed. In other words, where there is a good fit, you will try harder and feel right about what you’re doing,” she writes.
Not all goals will have all these characteristics, and that’s okay. In fact, we can reframe goals so they check more of the right boxes. I might be driven by guilt to avoid sugar and carbs, but I should strive to focus on being creative and challenging myself to come up with tasty treats (enjoyability). Your boss may force you to take a training course in marketing, but you can focus on how the new skills will be valuable for your career.
How do your goals stack up?
Photo by Flickr user .melanie