Everything Your New Year’s Resolutions Will Do to Your Brain and Body: Getting the Most out of Life

Living in the present and focusing on your goals: What does it feel like to live this impossible dream?

New_Year_Fullest

Most everybody’s unhappy these days — or at least, somewhat dissatisfied. Maybe your job bores the hell out of you; maybe life just hasn’t turned out the way you hoped it would; maybe you lost sight of a lifelong ambition at some point, and it’s fallen by the wayside. Whatever it is, finding your mojo, so to speak, is a popular New Year’s resolution.

Last year, we asked some inspiring people how they managed to wring the most out of their lives, but this year, we’re more interested in what kind of an impact that really has on you. We talked to Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (along with the forthcoming The Little Book of Being); and life coaches Dr. Lynn Francis and Dr. Saum Yermian.

Let’s start living…

What It Does to You After a Week
There are a couple ways you could arrive here after New Year’s. Perhaps you know what it is you want to chase after in life — some specific, tangible thing. Or perhaps you’re just feeling listless and dissatisfied with your current lot in life. Like, you can’t really put your finger on it, but you know you need a change.

If it’s the former, you at least have an idea of what you’re after, so in the first week, you’ve dedicated yourself to pursuing that new life. You’ve read about it; reached out to the right people who can explain it to you, help you or that you can model yourself after. Things are happening, and it’s damn exciting. You’re starting the journey to the new you! You’re feeling like a new person, sleeping great at night, and this new direction is all you can think about — you spend time daydreaming about it, and it probably feels like your life has a “purpose” to it.

But that’s not always how it goes, according to Francis. So, say it’s the latter: You know your life needs a change, but you’re just not sure what it is, or what direction to head in. If that’s the case, your first step is to figure this out. “If my clients had a specific goal, they’d just follow through with it,” says Francis. “But they’re a little confused. So we explore, and the beauty is that they do know. I ask them questions and find out from their own heart and their own soul, who they are. If it’s their job they’re dissatisfied with, well, what’s your ideal job look like? Maybe they can’t name it specifically, but there’s usually some idea of what they want to do.”

“The process has to happen before you start,” says Saum. “The reason why most resolutions fail is because they’re being implemented as an extrinsic factor.”

Now, it may sound like beating the same old drum, but if, like a lot of people, you’re constantly distracted by your phone/email/social media profile/the 24-hour news cycle, etc., you could probably benefit a lot from mindfulness. Yeah, you hear about it a lot these days — it’s been the cure-all du jour for the last few years. But it basically just means being in the moment and not spacing off or getting distracted. And for a lot of people, it enables serious joy in their lives and has a lot of real knock-on health effects.

It’s not completely easy or natural right off the bat, though. “Just like any medication, for instance, mindfulness doesn’t work for every person,” Winston says. Yet she says that for those who respond to it, they often report a sense of peace, ease and well-being just from an initial meditation (and she’d know, since she teaches thousands of people per year).

That said, it’s most challenging at the start: People tend to tell Winston that their mind wasn’t quiet. It happens to everyone, she says, and there’s nothing wrong with it. “One of the misconceptions people have about mindfulness is that they were supposed to have a completely quiet and still mind; their mind was supposed to go blank,” she says. “But that doesn’t happen at all.” So don’t despair if you can’t stop thinking about the last thing you watched on TV or whatever as you try to calm your brain for the first several times. You’ll get there.

What It Does to You After a Month
If you’re still practicing mindfulness, you’re probably getting more accustomed to it by now. “As people practice, it’s like any skill: It gets easier over time,” says Winston. “So initially people say, ‘Oh, my mind is so busy,’ but over time they get more and more capable of staying present and focused. And that’s encouraging for people to see that if you work at it, it can improve.”

If you’re really getting it, you might even start feeling the positive effects of practicing mindfulness, which are numerous. According to Winston, in the past decade, science has shown that it lowers stress, can possibly lower inflammation, boosts your immune system, speeds up your body’s healing response, lowers blood pressure and manages pain. Which is a pretty good deal for basically just focusing your attention properly.

What It Does to You After Six Months
Bearing in mind that everyone is different, the standard learning curve for mindfulness is six to eight weeks — that’s how long it takes to truly get a regular practice going, according to Winston.

So at this point, you could be feeling even more of its effects: It’s been shown, for example, to be very effective for anxiety and mild to moderate depression. You’re likely then to be feeling calmer and maybe even sleeping better, as it’s been shown to help treat insomnia. It also can offer better impulse control, like when it’s part of a program to help stop smoking or overeating. In other words, it’ll help you focus on — and better achieve — your goals.

Speaking of goals, by now you’re probably more fully aware of what it’s like to align yourself with your goal if you’ve been working at it. “When you become in alignment with what it is that you want, and how you want to be in the world, it just feels good,” says Francis. Your life might be shaping out to be an authentic version of who you are — you feel like “you” in a deep, satisfying way that feels powerful but is difficult to explain.

What It Does to You After a Year
After a year, your brain is probably different: That’s because mindfulness has been shown to thicken various parts of the brain that are connected to the prefrontal cortex. That’s a good thing! This is the region of the brain that controls personality, social behavior, flexible thinking, delayed gratification, working memory and other things. It’s the CEO of your brain, says Winston.

Working with people over time, Winston says people often report “more happiness, more kindness to themselves, improved relationships and family life, and being more present. You’re showing up for your kid, your partner or your spouse in a way that you haven’t before.”

Again, though, it’s something that requires a serious commitment and constant practice. Living life to its fullest — which, in the end, boils down mostly to being more present in the moment — takes a surprising level of effort.