Most of us make some kind of resolution for the New Year. It’s a good opportunity for a fresh start. Change isn’t easy, though, and lapsed New Year’s resolutions are certainly part of the common lore of our culture.
There is no lack of advice out there about how best to manage the resolutions we set for the year to come. Set clear goals (I prefer the word, “intentions,” by the way). Write them down. Check in regularly about how you’re doing. Enlist the caring and support of somebody else.
These are perfectly fine ideas that I’m sure you have heard before. I want to share with you, though, three ideas that get less press, that arise from some combination of empirical literature and my own experience working with people for a long time.
1. Remember why you want to be different.
I concluded long ago that for most people, “health” and even longevity don’t really have much inherent value. The status of our health and the length of our years are important, though, insofar as they allow us to live our lives in ways that matter to us.
Psychologist David Waters at the University of Virginia differentiates “health goals” and “life goals.” “Health goals” are the choices and lifestyle behaviors that people can pursue to address their most important health issues. Exercising, stopping smoking, developing a good nutritional plan. “Life goals” touch on the things that are most important to people in their lives… the things that they care about the most. Being a better teacher, coaching young people, being able to work in stained glass.
Waters argues that it is important for all of us (and our health care practitioners) to recognize the way that life goals energize health goals. The formula is “What is really important in my life is ________; therefore, my health goals are ________.”
Before I wrapped up my practice in 2015, I worked with a woman who had smoked for many years and had recently become involved in Buddhist tradition and practice. She said,
“Health” is not enough to motivate me to stop smoking. My reasons for stopping need to be more important than my reasons to smoke. I have taken a vow to work toward enlightenment, for me, and to help other people toward enlightenment. Smoking obstructs the inner channels where the chakras are… if I am serious about enlightenment, I have to quit.
You may not think much about enlightenment or inner chakra channels, but you get the idea. Changes in health practices (or any personal changes, really) need to be grounded in life values. Loving your partner. Caring for a needy family member or friend. Being an agent of disseminating kindness or compassion into the world. Working on behalf of causes that matter to you… environmental awareness, musical appreciation and creativity, social justice, or limitless others.
Remembering life values energizes personal changes.
2. Recognize the larger context.
How you’re doing overall either facilitates or inhibits personal changes.
A 2020 study from the University of British Columbia explored the relationship between purpose in life (yes, there are reliable and valid measures of this) and health behaviors in almost 14,000 people over a span of eight years. Researchers found that subjects with higher levels of purpose in life were significantly less likely to become physically inactive, to develop sleep problems, to develop unfavorable body-mass indexes, and modestly less likely to relapse in smoking cessation over the study period.
Those are some data about purpose, but I’d expect to see similar effects from any number of other global qualities… finding more joy in your life, or laughter, or social connections, or creative expression… apart from whatever you do to cultivate specific personal changes.
3. Be gentle with yourself with the ups and downs along the road
The journey does have its ups and downs, doesn’t it? Some days, like Mark Twain, you won’t exercise. Some days you’ll go for the mega sirloin in the restaurant rather than the Cobb salad. Sometimes, you will let emotions get the better of you and be unkind, rather than being an agent of forbearance and understanding.
Setbacks (the psychological literature calls these “relapses”) are common expressions of our humanity. In whatever way you may slide in a backwards direction, people have been there before. Having setbacks really isn’t an issue; the issue is how you deal with setbacks.
One of the exciting developments in the behavioral health world in the last few years is the emergence of research and practice in the arena of self-compassion. Arising mainly from work by psychologists Kristen Neff (UT, Austin) and Christopher Germer (Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance), self-compassion takes aim at our cultural tendency toward self-denigration when we don’t find ourselves behaving or managing our lives as we think we should.
Being gentle and compassionate with oneself has two benefits. First, it attenuates the health and emotional costs of unforgiveness, bitterness, and self-judgment. Second, self-compassion gives us the emotional space to be able to choose how we are going to react to setbacks. In our relationships with ourselves, just like our relationships with others, you forgive so that you can live your life.
Setbacks are unpleasant, of course, but they are also marvelous opportunities to step back and explore the conditions that prompted them. When you experience a setback with any personal change, what were the social circumstances that may have been involved? What internal experiences… thoughts, feelings, and images… may have been involved? How might you address these challenges better going forward?
So… as you find yourself teetering backwards with some personal change, think about what someone who knows you well and deeply loves you would say to you. Can you find it in your heart to treat yourself the same way?
There are many other lines of research and empirically based practice that bear on such things, notably work on gratitude, mindfulness, and on the larger picture of forgiveness. Stories for another day! For now, I’ll welcome your thoughts and comments on these ideas.
The quotation at the top, by the way, is a witty comment that has been attributed to a variety of people… Jimmy Durante, Edna Mae Oliver, Robert M. Hutchins, and Chauncey Depew among them. I imagine that they all probably said it at some point, with the original source being long lost. It is most frequently attributed to Mark Twain (who is likely not to have said it himself; he died before the quote began making its rounds), so that’s the way I’ve left it.
Best wishes for a meaningful, peaceful, and joyful New Year!