Every year around this time, millions of people make their New Year’s resolutions. Some of the most popular are to lose weight, be more organized, quit smoking, and enjoy life to the fullest. Despite our best intentions, the statistics paint a rather grim picture regarding the success of such resolutions. For example, fitness centers reportedly see a significant decline in attendance as February rolls around. In spite of good intentions, change can be a difficult thing. According to author David Eagleman, multiple factors are associated with our inability to follow through with change, some of which we give little thought or none at all.
In Eagleman’s bestselling book, Incognito, he tells a captivating story of the role our unconscious mind plays in our everyday life. He gives a humbling, research-based account of just how little our conscious thoughts guide our daily behaviors. He details how many daily activities are largely programmed into our brain without clear awareness. He explains the way that we often see things that are consistent with our past experiences and worldviews, and consequently ignore that which goes against what we believe or perceive is true. We often don’t see typos or words we are reading. We miss keys right in front of us. We may remember events very differently than how they actually occurred. But all unconscious judgments are not necessarily bad. For instance, if we had to intentionally think about routine activities like driving to work or walking and talking, we would quickly become overwhelmed. On the other hand, when it comes time to make thoughtful decisions, our unconscious mind can be our worst enemy, especially when taking on new challenges.
When faced with these challenges, few of us can resist the temptation to fall back on past habits. To effectively implement change, Eagleman advocates that, among many other ideas, we must predict what our future selves will do. If not, we will likely fail. Take, for example, the resolution to lose weight. No matter what fad is in place, it almost always comes back to moving more and eating better, and less. Many of us like the idea of eating healthier, but do not intentionally plan how we will resist temptations to eat poorly. When our houses are still filled with unhealthy food choices, when we do not plan ahead for meals instead of the drive thru, and when candy is still stashed at work, we are not being honest with our future selves. Many people like the thought of exercise. But when we don’t plan for disruptions and inconveniences that will occur, find ways to make it fun and diversified, and stop going to bed too late, we are not being honest with our future selves. Unconsciously, it is almost as if we believe our future selves will look a lot like who we are now. Therefore, we don’t do the work ahead of time needed to make real, long-term change possible.
But beyond this, there are other considerations. One is that we simply start too fast and too intensely. Thomas Merton once declared, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.” When we go from no exercise to five days in the gym, burnout is almost inevitable because it defies the typical way we work to change behaviors. Ideally, the principle of gradual exposure with response prevention has long been the gold standard in dealing with psychological factors, such as anxiety, associated with change. Said another way, this concept means taking small steps towards an ultimate goal, without allowing ourselves to avoid the fear completely. We no longer put people phobic of snakes in a room full of them (thankfully) because it usually led to complete failure and embarrassment. But we do teach them to establish a hierarchy of steps that leads to attainment of an ultimate goal, and skills to calm themselves and not avoid the steps altogether along the way.
Another flaw in our resolutions is that failure is often seen as a finality, not a step in the process. The average person who successfully quits smoking, or leaves an abusive relationship, initially fails more than five to seven times. Significant change rarely happens without failure. When managed properly, though, failure can actually serve as an asset in becoming our new future selves. When the diet crashes for a week, it may signal to us that we need to start with smaller, more manageable changes to our food choices. When our running shoes lie dormant for five days, it may be time to reach out to someone else to run with us once a week in developing a network of health conscious friends.
But in going deeper, much of why resolutions fizzle out is that they lack clear connections to more meaningful purposes. Losing weight to look better, or for being healthier, only takes us so far. However, losing weight to be healthier so that we can better pursue a particular calling, well, now we start to tap into a bank of emotional reinforcement that can begin to see us through the short- and long-term. Likewise, when being healthy allows us to enhance our relationships with others, and do things to benefit the public good, it is then that resolutions become a pipeline to a new lifestyle. As noted in an article I wrote about volunteering, we suddenly start to not just feel better, but to feel better about ourselves. The more we realize that we matter to others, the better we recognize the phenomenal innate capacity that may have lay dormant for years or even decades. Through this process, we develop an increased sense of gratitude for the things that may have been perceived as mundane. We start complaining less that we have to run for exercise, and become grateful that we can do it at all. We start to recognize the sunrise for the beauty that it is, and the daily rhythms and routines for the comfort they can provide. Recently, I twisted my ankle while running outdoor trails. The next few days following my injury it was difficult and painful to walk. It was only then I was reminded just how much I take for granted the joy of walking, not just on trails, but even to the hospital next door.
In many ways, our resolutions mirror the willful approach that is needed to overcome psychological conditions, even those of a severe nature. In committing to changes that need to be made, we must do so with as much clarity and consciousness as possible, even when these entities seem elusive. We must be cautious about agents which serve to dull us to our particular circumstances and state of mind, whether it be medications or otherwise. That is because it is critical to recognize what factors may be causing us to feel more anxious or depressed, including those that are extraneous by nature. Extraneous factors often cloud our ability to focus on aspects of our lives that matter the most. Viktor Frankl termed this conflict “noogenic neuroses”—an existential frustration that occurs when one’s focus on the trivial details causes a person to feel a lack of meaning in life. Even for more serious conditions, such as schizophrenia, it is necessary for an individual to commit in a deeper way so that the inevitable suffering of recovery to follow will carry a greater purpose beyond the pain itself.
So, this year, as you resolve that things will change, ask yourself a few questions, and teach your kids to do the same. What barriers of my future self will show up when February rolls around? What am I doing now to prepare myself so that these barriers do not derail my goals altogether? Second, do my New Year’s resolutions have deeper roots? Will it allow me to move closer to the person I am called to be, not ultimately for myself, but for others? I encourage you to share your responses with family and friends, particularly with your children. For as Thomas Merton once again proclaimed, “We do not live for ourselves…” But in order to live for others, we must resolve to make this year mean more to us than it has ever before.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.