By Drs. Gene Beresin and Steve Schlozman
There’s this guy, Sisyphus.
I feel like he invented the New Year’s resolution.
You know Sisyphus — he’s the guy who works so hard to push that stupid boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down again at the end of his hard work. You’d think he (and we) would have learned after all these years, but there he is, at the bottom of the hill, trying again and again.
It's a lot like so many of us. “Today,” you may be saying with resolve, “will be different." "Today I will get that boulder to the top of the hill.” Or: "This year I'll lose weight. Drink less. Exercise more." Fill in the blank.
But how many times do we fail in these New Year’s resolutions?
Researchers note that New Year’s resolutions are typically grounded in motivations to change our perceived vices: our addictions, our “bad” behaviors, our so-called “destructive flaws.” We know what’s good for us, we just can’t get it right.
Luckily for us, we do a little better than Sisyphus. It turns out that almost half of us succeed in our goals. We don’t hear about those successes so much but it’s true: We manage to keep about 50 percent of our self-improvement mandates. Of course that means that about 50 percent of the time we lose our momentum before the year is over. Hence, those same darn resolutions return to us each December.
This exercise in at least partial futility begs a fundamental question: Why is “bad” behavior so hard to change? We try to raise our kids to correct misbehavior; why can’t we do it ourselves?
This query is, understandably, the focus of a lot of research. We harbor false or exaggerated predictions. We assume (and we all know the dangers of assumptions) that change will be easier this year, or more predictable this year, or that we’ll somehow have changed enough that the resolution will finally be within our grasp.
Here’s the kicker, though, and it’s an important one: We truly believe that we’ll succeed. We’re not actively lying to ourselves.
Psychologists Janet Polivy and Peter Herman call this a “false-hope syndrome,” an exaggeration of our expectations for change, inevitably followed by the forlorn shutting down of our previously high aspirations.
But there is controversy as well. John Norcross and his associates suggest that the process of making a resolution is perhaps the most important step in behavioral change. Sprinkle this process with some select and admirable behavioral traits — self-efficacy, maintaining a course of action and readiness to change — and we stand a good chance of achieving our goals.
Typically, he notes, we meet these goals through positive reinforcement from others, and avoidance of past behaviors.
Being human is hard, though. Avoiding past behaviors is like learning to swim. It doesn’t really come naturally to anyone, though some of us are quicker to learn than others.
So, how about we look at resolutions in an entirely different way? What if we take note of our already-achieved positive traits, and focus on making them better? This seems a more productive recipe for success than our yearly tendencies towards self-flagellation.
Try these resolutions on for size, and see if they fit:
- “I will take greater pleasure in my partner, children, parents and friends.”
- “I will increase my caring of and sensitivity toward others.”
- “I will further my dedication to social and individual justice.”
- “I will emphasize my gratitude for the blessings in my life.”
- “ I will celebrate the times that I make a positive difference in my life and in the lives of others.”
- “I will spend more time and energy on the things that make me happy.”
We all have positive attitudes and activities that promote our health and well-being, and that foster the same in others. Positive thinking enhances relationships. Optimism promotes resilience. We have within us the capacity for creative thinking and personal fulfillment; these processes are hardwired into one big anti-Sisyphean feedback loop. Positive emotions promote positive thinking, and vice versa.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It can be a trap to resolve that we must simply work harder to think positively. Lots of the time, that approach by itself allows Sisyphus to win.
Look: These are scary times. But perhaps this time around, New Year’s resolutions can emerge from a reflection on the year gone by, and a sincere desire to make things better for ourselves and others.
This year, let’s focus on the brightness within us. Let’s resolve to enhance and build on what is good, fair and admirable.
At the end of the day, we’re much more likely to approach something positive than we are to walk away from something negative. We see this all the time as parents. Let’s parent ourselves this year.
Dr. Gene Beresin is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Steve Schlozman is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.