Use the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions to enact change.

Many of us use this time of year to reflect on what we’ve accomplished and what we’d like to change. But shouldn’t goal-setting evolve when we’re faced with a year likely to throw more challenges our way?

A new year may be the chance to adopt habits that are good for the planet, but it’s also an opportunity to reset habits that will support a sustainable life.

If you are someone who makes resolutions, why not embrace a holistic meaning of sustainability for a positive and purposeful year ahead? Here are ten recommendations for a healthier and more sustainable New Year.

1. Talk about climate change.

In her bestselling book Saving Us, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe names talking about climate change as one of the most important things we can do right now. Talking about the issue doesn’t mean becoming a climate scientist yourself. We’ve known about the science for over 150 years. Instead, it means finding common ground with others and sharing your concerns. By talking to family, friends, colleagues and leaders, we can spread awareness and press for action. We can also act ourselves.

2. Eat a plant-centered diet.

Whether you strive for veganism or not, science tells us that reducing our intake of beef and dairy products has a positive impact on the environment. National Geographic reports that food production accounts for almost 25% of carbon emissions globally. Beef and dairy are the top offenders in this category due to methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

Scientists have determined that limiting the rise in global temperatures is impossible without a change in eating habits. If you eat meat, let this year be the one where you reduce your consumption. Starting gradually with a few meatless dinners a week is a good option. Alternatively, some find eating no meat until the evening is a more workable solution. The New York Times has suggestions for meat lovers wanting to reduce. We’ve also shared some of our favorite meatless recipes in the articles below.

Low-Meat Alternatives: Recipes
Vegetarian Meals for Meat Lovers: Recipes

3. Grow something you can eat.

Gardening popularity exploded last year thanks to concerns about food security. But even if your store shelves remain stocked, growing some of your own crops helps curb greenhouse gas emissions by cutting down on transportation and packaging. Using organic methods and fertilizers helps the planet even more.

If you have room for a window or patio planter, consider making the most of your space using our companion planting guide. We’ve also shared the wisdom of our favorite horticulturist in our post about creating a balcony garden. If you want to go bigger, now is a great time to plan backyard garden beds. Seed sources are reporting record breaking sales and gardeners are advised to order early.

If space is limited, sprouts are a great place to start. All they require is a little counter space.

4. Start to compost.

Like the beef industry discussed above, organic waste consigned to landfills generates methane gas, contributing to the rise in global temperatures. Composting your kitchen scraps reduces or eliminates this load. It also has innumerable benefits if you garden, reducing or eliminating synthetic fertilizers, promoting higher yields, and improving soil.

Composting your food and yard waste has never been easier. If you don’t have curbside pick-up in your area, consider trying out one of the super-fast composters suited to your space and needs. Our blog post about choosing the right composter is a great place to learn the basics. We also have resources for apartment composting and how to use finished compost.

5. Divest from fossil fuels.

If your finances were lucky enough to escape the pandemic unscathed, you may be reviewing your investments and wondering if any changes are warranted. While the divestment movement is driven by companies and organizations taking their investments out of fossil fuel expansion, individual choices matter.

The 2021 report Banking on Climate Chaos is now available and is critical reading. According to the report, 35 banks have invested $2.7 trillion dollars into fossil fuel expansion since the signing of the Paris Accord in 2016. These banks use our retirement and education funds along with home mortgages to finance projects harmful to the future of the planet.

Review the list of banks responsible and choose to support funds with a future.

6. Trade computer time for nature.

Staying informed is an admirable thing but overwhelming yourself with too much information can be disempowering and lead to despair. The volume of news and pseudo-science published online every day is stunning. Our exposure to this barrage can lead to declining physical and mental health.

This year set limits. Use the time saved to get outside and walk in nature. Spending just 20 minutes in a park can lift your mood and improve your life satisfaction.

Related: The Healing Power of a Walk in the Woods

7. Practice listening.

This year challenged many of us with the polarization of opinions, both in the media and in our own families. At times it became hard to remember that differing opinions are part of life, and one can listen to an opposing point of view without having to agree.

The practice of mirrored or reflective listening can make these conversations easier. Psychologists suggest using this tool to both hear the emotional content of what someone is saying and to de-escalate situations and topics that can become heated very quickly. When this type of listening is done correctly, both sides leave the conversation with new understanding.

To listen reflectively, your goal is to first try to understand what someone is saying and then share what you think that might be. Since most people talk because they want to feel heard, your sincere response will usually be met with appreciation. It takes practice, but great resources about active listening exist. If your conversations are mostly about politics, you’ll appreciate I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening), by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers.

8. Smile more.

This may sound trite in a year of challenges but smiling doesn’t just send a positive message to those around you—it also has personal benefits. Smiling releases neurotransmitters including dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. These chemicals help to relieve stress, elevate mood, relax your body, and ease physical pain. Sound good? There’s more.

Science also tells us that smiling increases attractiveness and helps temper the response of those around us. When you smile at someone, you activate the reward center in both your brains. They’re more likely to smile back—thanks to a message from their cerebral cortex—making your interaction more positive. Smiling also makes us more creative and better problem solvers.

9. Spend less time being afraid.

It’s no surprise that the past two years saw an increase in fear and anxiety among Americans. And while clinical cases need to be handled with caution and the appropriate treatment, many people can reduce fear by making more conscious choices.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, limiting caffeine and alcohol can help. Getting adequate sleep and exercise is another positive way to ease the stress that contributes to fear and anxiety, along with identifying and avoiding your own personal triggers.

Instead of the nightly doomscroll through an unending list of negative headlines, choose activities that give you joy wherever possible. Taking part in positive action to help your community is one way to ease concerns. Some psychologists even recommend theatre improv as one effective treatment.

10. Be kind.

Some years ago, author and motivational speaker Wayne Dyer famously wrote, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” This year chief medical officers from Chicago to Vancouver echoed that sentiment, suggesting kindness as the antidote to the fear and uncertainty proliferating in the wake of our changing times. There’s a reason for this advice.

Not only does kindness increase oxytocin and generate feelings of goodwill and happiness, it also reduces blood pressure along with depression and anxiety. One study from Western Reserve University School of Medicine found that acts of kindness improve everything from our satisfaction with life to our physical health—and can even delay death over the long term.

Choosing kindness when things are unpredictable can help buffer the challenges we face navigating the unknown. It can also help us stay the course when change is just around the corner.

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