Science to Live By: Making and Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

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Making and Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

All our actions take their hue from the complexion of the heart, as landscapes their variety from light.

– Francis Bacon.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

Scrooge’s New Year’s Resolution was nothing short of life-altering.  Each year, my heart is warmed by re-reading the miraculous change wrought overnight by the visitations of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future told by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol.  Christmas Eve—Ebenezer Scrooge was a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”  Christmas Day—Scrooge had become as “light as a feather, … happy as an angel, … merry as a schoolboy, …  giddy as a drunken man.”

The arrival of the New Year offers each of us an opportunity to reflect upon our lives; where we have been and where we are headed. The dawning of these twelve months offers a fresh vantage point from which to envision how we wish to live within this annual gift of time.

If, upon reflection, we sense the need to make some changes in our lives, how do we go about making achievable New Year’s resolutions? Here are tips drawn from research in human psychology and the social sciences that can guide our efforts and increase our chances of successful change and growth.

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers these insights on how to make New Year’s resolutions stick.

Start small. Instead of a singular, overwhelming goal, set small, attainable goals throughout the year.   Make resolutions you can envision keeping.

Change one behavior at a time. Don’t get overwhelmed by trying to change too many things all at once.  Instead, work toward changing one thing at a time.

Talk about it. Sharing our struggles and our successes with family and friends makes the journey less daunting.

Avoid perfectionism. Expect missteps are going to happen. In the first months of implementing a resolution, research shows that people who ultimately keep their resolutions make as many missteps as those who don’t. The key is to acknowledge our mistakes, get back on track, and move forward.

Seek support. Accepting help from others strengthens our resilience and our ability to manage stress caused by change. Major life-altering resolutions may benefit from professional help by those trained to help us walk through painful and complex personal issues.

SMART is another useful perspective for formulating and achieving desired change in our lives.  Coined years ago by the journal Management Review, the acronym SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) describes formulation of goals that bring about desired results. We all stand a better chance of achieving our New Year’s Resolutions when we bear in mind these SMART guidelines.

Specific. Vague resolutions—I want to lose weight—seldom succeed. Specific targets—over the next three months, I will remember to say ‘thank you’ to the clerk in the check-out line—have a higher success rate.

Measureable. Tracking behaviors can reinforce change. Measure and keep a record of progress.   Show advancements you have made to friends and reward your intermediary successes.

Achievable. Don’t try to accomplish too much too fast. We are likely to become frustrated, and we run the risk of becoming fanatical, alienating family and friends. Tackle small chunks of the overall goal, baby steps that can be accomplished in the near term.

Relevant. Resolutions should reflect our core values, what really matters to us. Goals that are about more than just ourselves, over time, often afford a sense of a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose, which in turn, promotes their long-term success.

Time-bound. Set an overall time limit, with realistic timeframes to achieve intermediate steps toward the ultimate goal.

Keeping New Year’s resolutions is hard work. A University of Scranton study of New Year’s resolutions found, after a two-year period, fewer than 40 people out of 200 participants deemed themselves successful in reaching their goals. Nevertheless, making a New Year’s resolution can be worthwhile. The same study found that after six months people who made New Year’s resolutions were 10 times more likely to make a positive change compared to people who wanted to change but did not make a specific resolution to do so.

This old adage holds a grain of truth: people change either by inspiration or by desperation. In Scrooge’s case, his remarkable transformation was wrought by a powerful confluence of both forces.  On that fateful night, he came to regret choices he had made and to dread the direction his life was headed; he saw the good will and merriment he could bring to the world. Most of us will never experience such rapid and dramatic change in the character and direction of our lives. But that’s not what really matters. What is important is where we are headed and how we are getting there.

Most of us would prefer to be proactive (inspired) rather than reactive (desperate) when it comes to making needed changes in our lives. Here are two proactive New Year’s resolutions I will strive to promote in my life. The first is relational, the second personal. SMART ways to achieve them are as numerous as the number of people who would put them into practice. I offer these two resolutions for your consideration as well as we each embark upon the road of days stretching out before us.

Increase reverence. Life is refined and uplifted in the presence of beauty, the sacred and the sublime. Reverential awe—for life; for what is true, pure and beautiful—lives us the proper humility from which to grow and to develop healthy relationships. Reverence lies at the heart of civility, ceremony, and compassion. It is spoken in the language of relationship, sweetened through practicing the arts of hospitality, reciprocity, and care. For Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Prize-winning philosopher and physician, “reverence for life” affords the “fundamental principle of morality.”

Cultivate gratefulness. Gratitude is the supreme personal virtue. Cicero, ancient Rome’s great orator, recognized that a thankful heart “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all other virtues.” At its core, this virtue is deeply felt thankfulness for the gift of life. Regular practice of looking for and acknowledging blessings we receive each day makes gratefulness a habit of the heart.  Grounded in the emotion and disposition of gratefulness, all other virtues are nourished and strengthened.

Fellow Gazettians, thank you for reading. Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

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