Newswise — What is it about the turn of a calendar that makes us want to be better people? Maybe this year we have the Mayans to thank. If the year 2013 dawns and we’re still here, we might as well make the best of it.
Here, based on decades of research at Washington University in St. Louis, are 13 notable, no-holds-barred, what-are-you-waiting-for tips to make 2013 your best year yet.
1. Learn something new
Make 2013 the year you commit to lifelong learning.
“Taking a class in a subject you enjoy is a great way to rekindle your love of learning,” says Robert E. Wiltenburg, PhD, dean of University College, the professional and continuing education division of Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
“If you give yourself the freedom to explore new interests, you might uncover a passion that you never knew existed.”
2. Walk in the park
“A quick walk in the park can do wonders to reduce stress and increase focus,” says Aaron Hipp, PhD, environmental health expert and assistant professor of social work at WUSTL’s Brown School.
“Research has linked visiting parks to improvements in mood, concentration and positive feelings. People taking a walk in or even viewing a park report reduced feelings of depression, anxiety, anger and tension. A resolution to walk more and take advantage of local parks can contribute to a healthy, green year.”
“Volunteering is good for your physical and mental health, as well as the local economy,” says Amanda Moore McBride, PhD, associate professor and associate dean for social work at the Brown School and director of the university’s Gephardt Institute for Public Service. “Research links volunteering with improved overall well-being, and connections between people within a community correlates with strong economic indicators. Do everyone a favor this new year and volunteer.”
4. Get your social media house in order
The Internet and social media have opened up exciting new possibilities to connect with others and new vistas to share our preferences in films, books and music. Have fun. But be cautious. Think twice before you click on that social reader app or music-sharing service. Remember that what you read and view online is not as private as you think.
Check your default privacy settings. Log out and see what your profile looks like to the outside world. Make sure passwords are complicated and don’t use the same password for all social media accounts.
“We’re making choices without thinking about the way we’re building the world of new media,” says Neil Richards, JD, privacy law expert and professor of law at WUSTL. “But the choices we make now about the boundaries between our individual and social selves will have massive consequences for the societies our children and grandchildren inherit.” Richards is the author of the forthcoming book Intellectual Privacy, which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
5. Rediscover the library
Consider how much your library offers: novels and nonfiction works for all ages, how-to books, music CDs, movies on DVD or videotape, maps and reference works. Read the latest magazines or journals. Use a computer. Scan or photocopy materials.
The digital revolution has expanded what libraries offer and how you can access it. For instance, many libraries now make it possible for their users to download books to a personal computer, smartphone or tablet. And many library services are available for your online use any time and from any place.
Jeffrey G. Trzeciak, university librarian at WUSTL, says, “A library card can be the most powerful item in your wallet, opening up vast resources that will enrich your life and give you access to more than you can imagine.”
6. Step away from your desk
Physical activity improves health, lowers stress and increases productivity.
And if those weren’t reasons enough, research shows that exercise reduces the risk of diseases such as breast cancer, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Debra Haire-Joshu, PhD, director of the Obesity Prevention and Policy Research Center at the Brown School, and colleague Timothy McBride, PhD, associate dean for public health at the Brown School, encourage implementing “Meetings on the Move” to get employees on their feet and out of the office environment.
“You learn to sit at school; you learn to sit at work. Get active like you used to be when you were a kid,” Haire-Joshu says. “We can learn, then, to bring activity back into our daily life, just like we learned to take it out.”
7. Pay down your credit card debt
The presents have been opened. The tree has been put away. Now come the bills. What is the best way to tackle holiday debt?
“You may be tempted to pay off a smaller-debt account with a low APR because psychologically it feels gratifying to close an account. But the best way to reduce overall debt is to put extra money toward the loans with the highest interest rates,” says Cynthia Cryder, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at Olin Business School.
A few strategies to manage debt more effectively:
* Consolidate several small debts into a few larger ones to eliminate the temptation of closing small accounts.
* Pay attention to the actual dollars you are spending on interest.
* Always put your money toward the debt with the higher interest rate.
Paying down your debt more quickly is a positive step toward a happier, more prosperous new year.
8. Use your smart phone to quit smoking
Smoking is both a physical addiction to nicotine and a learned psychological behavior, so the best way to quit is to attack it from both sides, says Sarah Shelton, manager of research and evaluation at the Brown School’s Center for Public Health Systems Science.
If you use nicotine replacement therapy and take advantage of some form of counseling to help, you are more likely to be successful in quitting, Shelton says.
That counseling may be right at your fingertips — stop smoking by using your smart phone to get text messages of support, tweets and access websites that give step-by-step encouragement, Shelton suggests.
9. Mind your health
Getting healthier in the new year can be as easy as making a few simple lifestyle changes, like committing to eating a healthy breakfast, paying attention to grocery nutrition labels or sticking with a consistent exercise regimen.
Zuum, a free iPad app, estimates a user’s disease risk and offers a customized plan for living a healthier life. The Your Disease Risk website helps you determine your personal risk of developing the five most significant diseases in the United States
and get tips for preventing them.
And, as Kurt Vonnegut famously did not advise graduates in a commencement speech, always wear sunscreen and protect your eyes from UV rays by wearing sunglasses.
10. Kick the car habit
Leave your sedan, SUV or minivan in the garage and try alternative means of transportation, such as public transit, bicycling, walking or park-and-ride commuting.
“Each gallon of gas we burn releases approximately 20 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere,” says Phil Valko, director of sustainability at WUSTL. “With rising gas prices, rising sea levels and increasing traffic congestion, going car-free is a challenge that more and more individuals are interested in taking on.”
Shifting your commuting habits can have a measurable impact on the environment and on your health.
11. Parents: Make every day count
In order to be happy, well-adjusted children that grow into happy, well-adjusted adults, kids need happy, well-adjusted parents,” says Kelly L. Ross, MD. Ross is an assistant professor in the Department of Newborn Medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine and a pediatric hospitalist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Her posts on the ChildrensMD (Mom Docs) blog offer a two-part strategy for helping parents achieve their goal of being happier, and thus creating more well-adjusted, happy children, including advice on why it’s important to make every day count and a parents’ checklist for planning a happy new year. And, if exercise is one of your resolutions, Ross also explains why making time to exercise is a good mom behavior.
12. Get more sleep
As it turns out, telling someone to “sleep on it” is sound advice. Medical literature strongly supports a connection between sleep and learning, and for decades studies have confirmed the positive effects of overnight sleep on our ability to retain information and to perform tasks.
WUSTL scientists are learning more about the relationship between sleep and memory. In fact, recent research suggests that sleep may help clear the brain for new learning.
Washington University Sleep Center, one of the largest multi-disciplinary sleep centers in the nation, offers a wealth of online resources for helping patients determine if they have a sleep disorder and expert advice on achieving a restful night’s sleep.
13. Consume more culture
The arts have been a defining feature of every great culture throughout history. Be a part of that! Make it a point to visit your local museums, galleries, theaters, dance companies and music venues. Better yet, sign up for an annual membership or subscription. You’ll typically receive discounts. More importantly, you’ll help support an institution that you, and your community, find of value.
“By subscribing to a series, you’re telling the organization, ‘I believe in what you do. Culture matters to me. I’m one of your people,’” says Charlie Robin, executive director of Edison, the university’s professional performing arts showcase. “It identifies you as someone who is game for art, for entertainment and for edification. Don’t let weather, whining or whimsy counter your commitment to culture!”
And many community cultural institutions offer special opportunities to learn, to participate and to make the world a better place.
The arts not only educate and entertain, but they help us to better understand ourselves and others.