Changing patterns and behaviors to improve mental health

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As the world inches past the pandemic and things open up more, many people have vowed to make changes in their life, to get healthier, make a career change, or to create new social connections.

But many times it's easier said than done and that's where science can help.

"We fall back on our old habits; we take the path of least resistance," said Katy Milkman, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania.

Milkman has dedicated her career to figuring out why it's so difficult to change. What sparked her interest? A study showing 40% of premature deaths in the U.S. are due to changeable behaviors.

"So decisions we make about what to eat, whether or not to smoke, whether or not to drink, whether or not to be safe when we get into vehicles," she said.

She said humans aren't truly wired to achieve long-term goals. In her new book "How to Change" she detailed the science of getting from where you are to where you want to be.

It turns out this shift in the pandemic more people felt protected, restrictions lifting gives us an advantage. The so-called fresh start effect.

"The real benefit of a fresh start is that it gives us the motivation to try. And of course, you can't hit a home run if you don't swing. So it's great that it motivates us to try, but it is far from the whole equation," she said.

Yes, there's a lot more to do. She said figure out your obstacles, then make a plan around them.

In some cases, Milkman recommends temptation bundling, pair something you typically put off with something you love, such as only allowing yourself to watch Netflix while you exercise. Also, peer support can be hugely helpful.

"Are there people who can be part of your team who are working towards a similar change and who can cheer you on?" she said.

The book outlines other tactics, scientifically proven to work. Setting goals also gives someone a sense of purpose if they're linked to wellness such as more sleep, a healthier diet or lowering stress, even better.

"Then not only do you have the meaning but you may actually get closer to things that well help you," she said.

As for that myth that it takes 14 days or 21 days to form a new habit, Milkman said that's not based on sound science. Some habits will take much longer. She said the key is finding a tactic that works for you and sticking to it.
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