Monday, January 2, 2012

The problem with New Years' resolutions

By now, at least some people will have already broken their New Years' resolutions. I'm not criticising. I haven't even started mine yet. They're not written down anywhere, but I know what they are. It's easy to remember them when they're the same every year. Quit smoking, lose weight and do something with the house. In my defence, I will say that there used to be another one added to the list, which was go to university. I've actually started that now. And I have lost some weight at the end of last year. I just haven't taken my diet off holiday yet. I also have tiles to re-tile the bathroom and was going to do that after Christmas, but got sick and my plans had to be changed.

What is it about New Years' resolutions? We make them. We break them. We make them again next year. Or is that just me? And do these types of resolutions actually help or prevent us to make lasting change?

I'm now going through the backlog of emails from Christmas/New Year. And I've noticed a common thread. Many of the environmental newsletters I'm subscribed to are urging people to make Green resolutions. It makes sense. It's the time of year for it. And one thing we need to do, in order to look after this Earth, is change the way we live. So why not use this time of year to make those changes in how we live?

That's all well and good if we actually made our resolutions, changed our lives and never looked back again. But New Years' resolutions are well-known for being broken. We may change for a small amount of time. But often we go back to living exactly as we did before.

I'm no psychologist, so I have no idea why New Years' resolutions often fail. I wish I did. Maybe then I could actually quit smoking, instead of putting it on my list every year. But I suspect that partly it's to do with the fact that New Years' resolution are all about the external. When what we really need to do is to change our heart. A different way of living needs to come from inside. It starts with a different way of seeing and thinking.

And I think that sometimes the New Years' resolutions we make can get in the way of that change of heart. We've made our list. We tried and failed. What else can we do? They can almost become evidence for why we cannot make the changes we think we ought to make.

Quitting smoking is different to making our lives more environmentally-friendly. For one, smoking is an addiction. However, I wonder whether it is that different after all. While our lifestyles may not have physical addiction involved, we are addicted in one sense to our environmentally-destructive lifestyles. So maybe what I have to say about smoking is more relevant than it first appears.

I know I have to quit smoking. That's why it keeps getting on my list of New Years' resolutions. That's why I keep trying to quit. But part of me thinks I can't quit. And every time I try and fail, this idea that I just can't quit is confirmed. I can feel good in a way that I am trying. But I'm not actually changing anything - because I believe that it's just too hard for me. Trying and failing and trying and failing gives me the assurance that at least I am trying, but it doesn't actually change anything.

In terms of the environment, we need to stop making resolutions that we will use less plastic bags and drive less and switch off lights. We need to change our hearts. And we need to break the addiction to our current lifestyles. Because otherwise, we're all just going to keep trying and failing and trying and failing and never really change. In my case, if I continue to smoke, I'm damaging my body. In the case of our lifestyles, if we don't break our addictions, we're damaging the Earth.

New Years' resolutions can be good. While I may still have the same list every year, at least I know what I’m aiming for. And as I said before, I have done at least something about what's on my list. Also, making the types of external changes that are on New Years' resolutions list often can help us change our hearts.

But we need to realise that making a list is not enough. And we need to realise that what we try and do for four days or a week or a month or whatever is not nearly as important as our attitudes, our beliefs and our thoughts. For they will create lasting change, not change that needs to be aimed again for next year. 

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