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Forget Your New Year’s Resolutions    

Forget Your New Year’s Resolutions

Art by Andrew Wetmore

By Lee Phillips

I’m trying to think of a time I have heard, either first or secondhand, about someone whose life was changed by a New Year’s resolution. Nevertheless, year after year, the people around me make them with a glimmer of hope in their eyes, unaware of the fact that 90 percent of people don’t actually stick to their resolutions. As for that other 10 percent? I wouldn't be surprised if they found that losing five pounds didn’t actually bring them the spiritual peace they were looking for.  

Despite all of the mounting evidence that they’re not where it’s at, we simply can’t shake New Year's resolutions! Dating back to Akitu, a Babylonian New Year's Festival which began in 4,000 BCE, these resolutions have been deeply embedded in the human psyche. Today, we’ve turned the focus away from a celebration of the earth’s full orbit around the sun and the new beginnings that come with it into a commercialized party where we wear sequins, drink too much champagne, and then vow to be better people (starting tomorrow). 

I’m all for celebrating a new year, but I have a problem with the whole concept of New Year's resolutions. They are more than just ineffective motivators for change, they are psychologically dysfunctional, so I’m calling BS! 

First up under my critical microscope: the amount of pressure we put on these resolutions to make us feel better about ourselves and the lives that we live. Resolutions are often about changing something we feel insecure about, which makes them a great target for commercial manipulation. When we make resolutions based on things we don’t like about ourselves, companies take advantage of our vulnerability by trying to sell us the solution. It’s a huge problem with marketing all year round, but one that’s especially amplified during this time when everyone is vowing to be a better version of themselves. Have you noticed the uptick in gym commercials and diet ads that pop up around the New Year, for instance? 

The subtext for resolutions is that they’re an opportunity to finally tackle that one thing we perceive as holding us back from true happiness. When you go into a change thinking that it alone will make you feel better about yourself, you set yourself up for failure. Feeling truly fulfilled in life is actually not connected to your weight, your relationship, financial status, or other “superficial” aspects of your life, it comes from something much deeper. It’s about feeling whole as you are, now. When we tell ourselves that a superficial change can make us feel more fundamentally happy, as we so often do with resolutions, we set ourselves up for disappointment, whether we stick to it or not. 

To avoid that lose-lose dynamic when you’re considering a resolution, find one that comes from a place of happiness, not insecurity. Use your resolution as an opportunity to affirm something you love about yourself, such as ,“This year, I am going to keep holding space for the people I love.” This turns the idea from an insecurity fixer into a positive, self-supporting experience. 

Another problem with New Year's resolutions is that wanting to change something about your life almost always comes with psychological baggage that needs to be worked through. When you pick an arbitrary day out of the year to suddenly make that change, you're expecting yourself to have already done the inner work to be ready for it. You may vow to quit drinking, for example, without having done the healing work to understand why you drink in the first place.  There are so many stages that lead up to making an actual change –  realizations, breakthroughs, and healing – that you can’t simply skip over. To enact real, long-lasting change, you’ll want to start at square one of that process – acknowledging what you want to change and why, and thinking of small steps you can take to eventually get there. 

While New Year's resolutions give off a “now or never” vibe, the truth is that even if you wanted to try and schedule out your growth, the human spirit is too complex for that. Yes, calendars are great for appointments and birthdays but it’s trickier to force self-work into a strict schedule. At the end of the day, change is going to come when you really feel compelled to make it, not when the clock hits midnight. If we took away the cultural hype, January 1st would just be another day out of 365. The good news is that each one of those days is great for making a change. 

If anything, breakthroughs tend to come when you least expect it or after longer periods of putting in the work to get there. The rhythms of our life are not bound to man-made time, and cannot be planned for (sorry, I don’t make these rules!) What we CAN use New Year’s for is beginning some of that internal self-work that leads to long lasting change. You can use this time of the year to reflect on who you want to be, and what it will take for you to get there.  

That kind of reflection is available to us any time of year. Part of my beef with New Year’s is that it implies that the energy of new beginnings is only available to us in January. Rebirth is not a finite resource – it’s a gift that we have access to at any moment we need it. Right now, as you’re reading this, or later on in the day, or when you’re 99 years old, you can change your life if you choose to. Not by making a “resolution” for the future, but by embodying your values and highest self in the moment. 

In that case, maybe my beef with New Year’s is the same as my beef with any kind of planning, which I'm starting to think can never really work. Instead of conjuring an “ideal” future version of yourself that you must work towards, what if instead we focused on being our best selves in the present moment and making conscious choices? Then, what you’re meant to have and who you’re meant to be can evolve naturally. Maybe you’ll find that when you do that, whatever you have resolved to be or do is already here, accessible to you in this moment.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414 and subscribing to our bi-monthly newsletter here