You will not quit smoking. I will not quit eating carbs. You will not run a mile a day. I will not quit being so easily riled. You will not quit overfeeding your cats. I will not take up meditation/contemplative prayer/praying The Daily Office. You will not quit leaving the toilet seat up/down/whatever. I will also not quit eating sugar, not start writing x number of pages a day, give up swearing, start being nicer, stop being so judgmental, give up any one of a number of disgusting habits, make all new clothes I decide to need with fabric I already own, or study German for x number of minutes each day. Nor will I lose x number of pounds. All of those things would make my life better–though, according to a good article in last week’s Newsweek called “The New Year’s Resolutions That Won’t Fail You,” they probably wouldn’t make my life as much better as I believe. Research backs this up.
Research also suggests that (and here’s the kicker, folks) “…willpower is a unitary and depletable resource: the more of it you use making one change, the less you’ll have left over to make others. The discipline you exert on building the exercise habit, initially at least, leaves you more susceptible to burgers rather than less. ” Bummer. Here’s the good news, though: research also suggests that going for little, incremental wins, even tiny ones, contributes more to your general happiness than achieving the Big Changes. Interesting.
The article goes on to offer several sane-making approaches to making changes without succumbing to “fresh-startism” and all the emotional blackmail, shoving, and hoopla that tends to go with any discourse we have around change. Aim for 15 seconds of exercise. Then try for 20. Seconds. Not minutes. Quit waiting for your brain to fall in love with the idea of making healthier choices and just make the ones you can and let yourself feel good. It’s kind of the sane person’s version of that ubiquitously applicable Nike slogan “Just do it.” Except in this version, there aren’t marathons and 100-lb losses. There’s just a steady respect for increments. Little ones.
What seems to me to be important here is the extent to which the Newsweek article ( by Oliver Burkeman) suggests that the CHANGE YOUR LIFE/NEWYEAR, NEW YOU/GET HAPPY OR ELSE industry is as full of it as I have always suspected. Wayne Dwyer, Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins–those guys. The ones who write the books that are so tempting. I have no doubt at all that there are people whose lives have, indeed, been changed for the better by reading one of those books, or attending one of those talks, or taking on of those seminars. I’m sure there are life coaches out there who are more beneficial to their clients than not. But, rather like the stories of transformative weight loss the industry loves to tell/sell us, all of these narratives are, by their nature, short-termed and superficial. And “sell” is an important word there–fresh-startism is an industry and there are people who are getting very, very rich by selling you the dream. Whatever your dream is.
That’s how capitalism works–and a good thing it is, too, mostly. Lots of energy there, lots of invention, lots of drive. And just enough stories of rags-to-riches, ffffat-to-svelte, dysfunctional-to-dazzling exist, verify-ably, to make it clear that whatever transformation you long for is some degree of possible. After all, someone eventually wins the lottery. But the lottery jackpot is the product the combined pay-in, in tiny increments, of lots and lots of losers. And the fresh-start successes are the products of so much more than a book or seminar can provide–complicated amalgams of readiness, luck, hyper-focused hard work, skill, and for all I know, weather, along with whatever system the person has adopted. And that one factor–readiness–is in and of itself awfully complicated.
But of the 89% (according to the article, quoting the findings of a University of Scranton study that was funded, interestingly, by Ameritrade…) of us who make resolutions, 46% successfully achieve them, at least by any testable measure at 6 months out. That seems to me to be kind of surprisingly high, actually. Almost enough to undercut the argument of the article in the first place. Well, unless you figure that that leaves (I am not going to attempt precise math here–one of my permanent resolutions is to not hurt my head unnecessarily…) roughly half of 89% of us–54%, up the creek of our expectations in the usual chicken-wire canoe. The article cites as a core problem the notion that we need to get our heads/emotions revved up and pointed in the right direction–the Tony Robbins approach to life. And our heads are notoriously prone to lollygagging, chickening-out, intransigence, and push-me-pull-you-ism. Personally speaking, I’m nearly terminally prone to that last one. Not that the others aren’t in my repertoire, too.
There is, I think I’m not particularly incisive in thinking, something particularly American about that fresh-startism. After all, if you’re the product of European and/or to some extent Asian ancestr, your folks came here in the first place for precisely that opportunity. We’re the People of the Fresh Start. Mitt Romney just ran a whole presidential campaign on that philosophy, and no matter what you thought about Mitt or his campaign, it was a quintessentially American discourse. And it’s also kind of a narcissistic discourse–fresh-startism, I mean, not Mitt’s campaign–in that it suggests that you are the proper primary focus of your energies, and that some form of personal perfection is something you are capable of earning, that you deserve to earn it, that it’s somehow yours for the taking. Mitt’s campaign we will not speak of.
And, like Capitalism, this sort of narcissism is and has been the source of much achievement. Some measure of it is even undeniably healthy. I just have a problem–a gut-level, intuitive problem–with systems that suggest that there’s something wrong with not wanting every facet of your life to exist on some definable plain of extraordinariness. It takes so much energy and requires constant calibration of standards and so easily bleeds out into other areas of your life (if I am extraordinary, then my children MUST also be extraordinary), and seems so fragile in the end.
This is certainly not me preaching against striving, or against desiring the extraordinary. We’re just talking about New Year’s Resolutions here. And evidence, of which there is some mounting that we do better if we reach for smaller increments and rejoice in smaller accomplishments than “New Year, New Life” approaches offer. And I’m all for evidence.
Here’s what I know: Last year I tried making no resolutions. It felt weird. Making resolutions is a kind of ceremony of optimism with which to approach the turning of the year (an artificial construct, admittedly, but one we’re pretty well accustomed to paying pretty serious attention to–deeply woven into the fabric of most human cultures). And I’m a big believer in ceremonies, in ritual, in liturgy. I stuck to my guns, even though it made me distinctly uncomfortable, and formulated nary an intention. I didn’t like it. It just felt weird–disordered. So I told myself that I felt that way because I had just bought into the culture of fresh-startism (although I hadn’t learned the nifty term for it yet). That didn’t work, either. It just added another wash of grey to January, which is already my least favorite month. So this year, I’d decided, as I said a couple of blogs ago, to make a couple of really little resolutions–to read more poetry and always check snopes.com before I re-post shocking info on FB–and they seem like fine, useful resolutions. One will make me better at what I do (hopefully) and the other will cut down on my public humiliation quota. And I feel better for having made those (am already working on them, in fact)–almost delighted.
Of course I intend to be more regular about exercise and attend both more gently and more aggressively to my health. And I am using the turn of the year as a marker or door or switch point in my conversation with myself about those things. At some point, I suppose the distinction between an intention and a resolution becomes moot–too muzzy to matter (she muttered, musingly)–but it feels like a distinction to me, an actual difference. It feels like it matters. So I’m sticking to my 2 formal resolutions.
BTW, it made me smile that the first 3 in the Top 10 Resolutions list from that U. Scranton study were “1. Have more fun. 2. Relax and reduce stress. 3. Spend more time with family.” Nice to think that our fellow humans do, in fact, care more about those things. Weight loss is all the way down at 10, though eating better and moving more are 4 & 5. 6,7,8, and 9 are all the money matters. It’s kind of nice to know that healthy behaviors come before either money or losing weight.