How’s your habenula?

For most of us, 2021 was such a different year. Dealing with this pandemic sure changed our daily lives in many ways, but one thing is still the same — and every January I have a similar message when writing this column. For some of my regular readers it may be repetitious but I know this excellent paper adds thousands of new readers every year and I’m writing to them, too. 

I hear this statement referred to so frequently it encourages repeating in some form every January: Last year went by way too fast and next year will, too. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, time and reality don’t allow us to stay the same as we age. So, as we enter 2022 and consider what we want to do differently in this new year, please know we each can either find ways to improve aspects of our lives or we will, to some degree, go downhill. There is no way to just maintain, so don’t kid yourself. Another year will take its toll, like it or not. Be very thankful most of us have ways to improve ourselves as time tries to diminish us.

Because this column is about our health and because our personal health is THE most important focus for each of us to have, that’s what I’m going to talk about. Don’t even think about challenging that statement as being too self centered. Whatever we value more than our personal health — our sons and daughters for whom we’d sacrifice everything, our spouses, our religions, our careers which inspire many to prioritize over more healthful behaviors…blah, blah, blah. If you have a significant health issue it will negatively affect all the above, and your focus will then be self centered in ways you’ve not chosen. 

How can most of us improve our health? And do it realistically, not some unattainable resolutions we’ve made before and failed to keep. To address this requires me to change a long-held belief. Some of you may think changing our minds or our beliefs about important things is a sign of weakness, is being wishy-washy or is a sign we were wrong before. Well, there are many ways to approach the challenges in life and keeping an open mind, and adapting to new information seems to me to be essential. Welcome change. We cannot improve anything without changing it. 

I’ve always valued will power as the path to improving whatever it is we as individuals want to improve. My research recently broadened my knowledge about an area of the human brain (the habenula) relating to memory that has led me to question that. I’ll try to summarize the information without over-simplifying. As a survival mechanism for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, part of our brain’s memory center records failure and then reinforces failure as an important way to avoid a potentially harmful activity. In today’s lifestyle this may result in accumulating a history of failure to say, make a major resolution a reality. After making big resolutions that require my long-valued will power and then failing to prevail, a pattern of failing imbeds in our subconscious. January inspires us to set major goals, to reach higher. Often too high. The Rx for this is to set smaller goals. A series of small steps where we actually succeed establishes a positive self-image that begets more success. All without my beloved will power. I’m not abandoning the value or necessity of will power, I’m adding to it. 

One of the best aspects of the work we do is helping others improve their lives. Every year adds more folks doing exactly that. If this column adds even one more person in 2022, and if that person lets me know, my habenula gets a jolt of dopamine! Wishing all a Happy New Year!