It is that time of year again when you start to think about resolutions for the New Year! Usually these involve losing weight, exercising more, drinking and smoking less, and maybe finding the right romantic partner or job. While it certainly is a great idea to try and improve your life in the New Year too often people fail to accomplish their goals and feel very discouraged while trying to do so. They may begin the New Year with a great deal of motivation and desire but then as the days and weeks go by they return to their earlier behavior patterns, settle into their old habits, and let go of their resolutions until the following year comes along.
This happens to us because behavior, once well establish, is really hard to change...really really hard to change! If there is one thing that I've learned while conducting psychotherapy with patients for over 30 years is that any sustainable behavior change (especially when it involves health behaviors, impulse controol, and personality issues) is very hard to accomplish. Plus, most people rely on willpower to change their behavior which is unreliable and can certainly come and go based on changing moods, desires, and distractions in the moment.
So, if you really want to change behavior you need to forget about willpower and be aggressive in your efforts to alter your environment. It helps if you can engineer your behavior change to force you to do things differently. For example, getting a big dog that needs to go on frequent walks forces you to get out and exercise on a regular basis. Keeping problematic food and drink out of the house forces you to eat healthier at home. You get the picture. If you really want to change your behavior in a way that is sustainable for the long term you need to create an environment that forces you to do so. However, this is easier said than done for most people.
Maybe the dirty little secret about resolutions in the New Year is that most people really are quite ambivalent about behavior change to begin with and in many ways they don’t want to change at all! Sure, many folks would like to weigh less, for example, but they don’t really want to give up their eating habits. Many people might want to be fit but they don’t really want to get out there and exercise. We want the outcome of behavior change but not the process. This is totally understandable but often hard for people to admit.
I’d like to suggest that you actually don’t need to fool yourself (or others) about behavior change in the New Year at all. There is something to be said for accepting yourself as you are and to be realistic about what you can and can’t change in yourself. Think Serenity Prayer (i.e., in a nutshell, change what you can and accept what you can't)! In fact, it could be quite freeing to forget about resolutions in the New Year altogether and just be grateful that you made it to another year and celebrate the gift of life. Being grateful for what you have and who you are might be a better strategy in the New Year than beating yourself up for what you need to change. Plus there is plenty of research that supports the notion that gratitude helps your mental and physical health as well!
Take a page out of the Thanksgiving playbook and spend the New Year listing all of the things and people that you are grateful for at the start of 2014. And perhaps tell those who matter to you how much you appreciate them as you begin the New Year. Maybe being grateful is more important than trying to change your behavior in the long run anyway.
Happy New Year!
So, what do you think?
Copyright 2013 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP