The Desire to Reach for the Sky
With a new year, many people make resolutions. The vast majority of this year's resolutions will center on physical health, according to one survey Most of these resolutions will be abandoned or forgotten by February. Health psychology researcher Phillippa Lally of University College London found that it takes an average of sixty-six days, eighteen to 254 days, to form or break a habit. Our New Year's resolutions aren't getting enough time to facilitate the changes we seek in our lives. Motivational speaker Cavett Robert said, "Character is the ability to carry out a good resolution long after the excitement of the moment has passed." The excitement of the moment passes quickly.
There are countless books and articles and speeches that instruct us on the fine art of self-improvement, lots of tips and ideas, and endless suggestions for being a better person. For any specific resolution we make at any time of the year, there are resources to turn to when we want to lose weight, improve vocabulary, organize living space, or win friends and influence people. If we type "self-improvement" into the Google search engine, 1,630,000,000 results materialize. "Personal development" yields 3,060,000,000 results. "Weight loss" produces 1,280,000,000 results. Self-help, by itself, is a three billion dollar industry. This suggests that in the human being lies the need to be something better. Architect Cesar Pelli said, "The desire to reach for the sky runs deep in our human psyche. "
There is no set of tips or suggestions that works for everyone when it comes to succeeding in a resolution. An individual may find that what a guru touts or a friend finds helpful, he or she finds less appealing. Though I abandoned formal New Year's resolutions many years ago, life is a process of making resolutions and setting goals, and I've found some generalities helpful.
To succeed in keeping a resolution, it's a good idea to choose resolutions that are within our control. A resolution is a commitment to do or not do something. A goal is a milestone to reach, completed upon achieving the milestone. Sometimes we use these terms, resolution and goal, interchangeably. If I resolve to learn about gardening and plant and tend a garden for a season, I can control that and succeed in it. I can set a goal to grow bell peppers and carrots and tomatoes and lettuce and beans, but I may not be able to do that, even if I plant and tend the garden diligently. I can resolve to raise money for a charity or to put aside a dollar a week for a charitable endeavor, and I can control that. I can make a goal to raise a particular sum for a cause and work diligently toward that, but the final number of dollars raised in a particular amount of time is out of my control unless I am resolved to make up the difference if the community doesn't contribute as I hoped. I can resolve to prepare for and enter a contest or a marathon. Barring unforeseen issues, I can control that. But to resolve to win a competition is less within my control. It's a fine goal, and it's realistic in some cases, but not in most. A realistic commitment to do or not do something in pursuit of being better is a means to change.
Some resolutions are quite lofty. "I will eat right" is a vague and ambitious resolution. The individual who makes such a resolution is wise to want to eat a healthier diet. But he or she is also very likely to fail. It is difficult to make drastic changes in diet, and someone trying to break a lot of bad habits at once tends to make mistakes and get discouraged. Instead of a broad goal, some will be more successful making several smaller, more reasonable, more measurable resolutions. These can be pursued at the same time, or one resolution, then another, can be added to a first. The resolutions to eat "more" or a certain number of fruits and vegetables, to eat less sugar and salt, and to eat less processed food, may seem less daunting if broken down. A day or week when two of the resolutions are kept can then seem like a success instead of the day or week when one of the resolutions was not met seeming a failure.
Some people like very concrete ways to measure success of their resolutions. Experts often recommend this. "I will read one hundred pages per week of fiction or non-fiction" is measurable and specific. While many experts consider it too vague, for some people, to say "I will read more" is enough. "I will take a book or ebook with me when I might have a chance to read" for the overscheduled or anxiety-prone, may be a "just right" kind of resolution. Keeping the activity in mind and taking a book to read while waiting for an appointment or bus, makes it easy to succeed in the resolution and enjoy the pursuit.
A resolution can be little in terms of time and money and huge in its effect. Steve Maraboli said, “I will be generous with my love today. I will sprinkle compliments and uplifting words everywhere I go. I will do this knowing that my words are like seeds and when they fall on fertile soil, a reflection of those seeds will grow into something greater.” It doesn't take time or money to think more positively. To resolve to give out sincere compliments more often or to say "thank you" more often can improve an individual's character but can also brighten the lives of others. To check on a friend or relative or neighbor who might need a word of encouragement once a week or even "more often" can make a difference in the lives of those who receive a kind word in a moment of need or on an ordinary day when it was unexpected. To improve a relationship, to improve the life of a loved one or a stranger, or to adopt a neighbor who is lonely can be some of the most satisfying of resolutions. A resolution to feel less anger, to less often raise one's voice, or to simply smile more (even with masks, people can tell) can make a big difference in a life.
Room for Imperfection
A good resolution leaves some room to succeed without being perfect. Instead of a goal to do something difficult every day, it may be a better resolution to do it five or six days a week. Obviously, this doesn't apply to something that really needs to be done every day. But for working on that novel or jogging or working to learn a skill, a little room to 'slack' can help an individual be successful in the resolution and keep it up.
It's too easy to make a mistake or have a bad day and consider a resolution broken and give up. It's easy to leave the resolution behind, considering it a failure. Instead, a mistake can be seen as just that, a mistake. A bad day is just a bad day. The next day is a good day, a day to succeed.
A friend once struggled with alcohol addiction. Alcoholic Anonymous was a great support, and the friend attended regularly to her credit. One day, after an impressive number of days sober, she made a mistake and had a single drink. The mistake was disappointing, and she regretted it but also what she saw as the loss of so much progress, starting over after so many days sober. But my friend was no failure. Her many days sober could not be taken away. She achieved that, and was proud of her. She still had all those days of sobriety, with one mistake. She continued her journey of sobriety the next day.
Sometimes we blow it. We mean to get it right, but we blow it. That is when we get up and keep trying. Instead of thinking of a resolution as ruined or failed, it is healthier to think of it as a resolution not met that day or week or month but that will be today, this week, this month or the rest of this day, this week, or this month.
When Less is More
For the overscheduled, to do less rather than more may be prudent. It may make sense to slow down. Maybe one ambitious goal-setter needs to take on a little less, do more of what he loves, take more time to meditate or rest, or spend more unscheduled time with family. Sometimes it serves a greater goal to give up on a less important or ill-advised one. Sometimes it is a good idea to sell the car that we aren't ever going to actually make over, to hire out the job we are never going to get to, or to shutter or hand off the side business that is leeching time and money, causing more stress than satisfaction, and never turning profit. Maybe a simpler vacation and simpler plans for celebrating holidays or entertaining can benefit the overworked and overscheduled as more social activity and more entertaining might enrich the life of someone who is lonely or in a rut.
The Human Need for Purpose and Betterment
Author and lecturer Steve Taylor, Ph.D., sees our human struggle to achieve as the natural result of evolution. "Human beings are naturally dynamic. Growth is an intrinsic part of our nature. Life on earth has always been dynamic, as expressed through the process of evolution. Life has always had an innate tendency to grow towards greater complexity, to become more organized, and more conscious. So when we feel a sense of purpose — and this is particularly the case at higher levels of purpose — we’re really manifesting the creative urge of evolution, becoming its expression, which is possibly why it feels so right when we do it."
For ancient Romans, resolutions were made upon the start of a new year in order to receive forgiveness and favor in the new year from the god Janus. Hindus live according to a moral code in hopes of reincarnation and continued learning until one day achieving oneness with Brahman, a supreme spirit. Buddhists believe in transmigration, a form of reincarnation. They live by a code in hopes of eventually reaching Nirvana, a state incomprehensible to the human mind.
For modern believers in the God of Abraham, the idea that the individual is not mere accident but the child and creation of God inspires good works and self-improvement with the goal of serving and pleasing Deity and serving mankind. For humans of different times and societies and beliefs, the desire to learn, to achieve, and to be better is in our DNA. It is basic to our species, something at the heart of who and what we are. We see as tragic a life that remains stagnant or potential unfulfilled.
The 1999 film The Matrix introduced the idea of a choice between a red and blue pill. One would open the eyes to an unpleasant reality, a situation requiring dealing with frightening truths. The other allowed the individual making the choice to live in a fantasy, unaware of the real circumstances of his existence. The film's protagonist, Neo, chooses reality and all that comes with it. Like Neo, we want purpose. We want our existence, our lives, our choices to matter. We want to know more, to learn more, to be wiser, smarter, kinder, or happier. We want to be better.
With a new calendar year, a new school year, a new fiscal year, or a new chapter in life, we tend to take the opportunity to make resolutions and goals for the next period in our life journey. But in our desire to be better, the whisperings of our consciences telling us to do the right thing and gracing us with pangs of guilt when we fail to do the right thing, guides us to make every decision every day part of our quest to be better. Author Aldous Huxley points out, "There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self."