Each January 1, we are exposed to annual exhortations to ditch the old self and find a new one. It's time to live better, eat better, work harder, and engage in fewer naughty behaviors. Gym owners prey on our desire to start the year determined to atone for the indulgences of the previous holiday season. Those one-year memberships that people excitedly sign up for set the pace for the year's profits. Sadly, each year the crowds inevitably thin as the days of January start to lengthen and the lines for the treadmill start to shorten.
Of course, there is much to be said for turning over a new leaf and beginning the year with a fresh outlook on yourself. Staying active is the key to a long and healthy life. Having and then actually using a gym membership is a step in the right direction toward that end.
However, must new year's redemption take the form of a complete shedding of the old you? Why can't you hang onto your old self while you tinker with the parts you'd rather change? In my research, published in The Search for Fulfillment, I compared feelings of happiness among life pathways of midlifers. The people in my study who showed the greatest distress had lives that took radical twists and turns from one job and family to another. They continued to meander until by their 50s, they were despairing that time was running out on their ability to find a truly satisfying identity. Clearly, their life's mantra was a misguided belief that "new" is better.
Remaining completely static isn't the solution, either. Another group of participants in my study, who followed the "straight and narrow" pathway through life hardly ever made changes, either large or small. Low in feelings of fulfillment, they could have benefited from acting on even small ways to explore new avenues of self-expression.
Change for the sake of change isn't a strategy that will lead to happiness. Neither is avoiding change just for the sake of stability. The key to fulfillment is making adaptive changes all along the way, or what I call the "authentic road." When there's a lack of fit between how you feel inside and the roles you occupy in your life, it's time to examine whether something in your life needs to be adjusted.
When you feel that you're not making enough of a difference in the lives of others, it might be time to figure out ways to get a deeper sense of meaning out of your work, your community involvement, or the time you spend with family. There are many small adjustments you can make that, over time, can gain momentum and enhance your overall feelings of well-being. And, more importantly, make a difference in other people's lives. In any case, you don't need to wait until a new year rolls around to get that change underway.
I suppose the worst feature of new year's resolutions is that they simply don't work. Once you've broken one, you berate yourself for your failure and then before long, you've lost all faith in your ability ever to live a better life. Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura showed the importance to success of believing that you have the ability to complete a job effectively. He called this quality "self-efficacy." If you think you won't succeed, you definitely won't. If you think you will, your success is not a predetermined conclusion, because talent also comes into play as does opportunity. But doubting yourself is a sure way to thwart your ability to achieve your goals no matter how much talent or opportunity you have.
The "abstinence violation effect" is another reason that resolutions fail. University of Washington psychologist Alan Marlatt proposes that when we fall off the wagon (violate our abstinence pledge) we become convinced we will never get back on. According to Marlatt, we are more successful in keeping our resolutions if we build in a little failure right at the outset.
So take heed of warnings that tell you not to get caught up in the resolution hype. However, keep yourself open to change, especially if you can find ways to adopt healthier lifestyle habits and do some good for others. But don't give up on yourself if you have let things slide a little. Have confidence in your own power to change on your own terms.
Here are a few practical tips for handling New Year's resolutions:
1. Keep the resolutions to a reasonable number. Identify one or two areas of your life in which you would like to make a change and make a plan to get started on those.
2. Keep the idea of change in perspective. I've included a few silly images in this blog that poke fun at resolutions. You don't have to make all your changes on one day of the year.
3. Build in failure. You will invariably slip up at some point along the way, but don't let that experience bring you down. There will be days and maybe nights of indulgences. If you keep your eye on your change goals, you'll be able to get back on track.
Enjoy the new year, and the same, or ever so slightly new, you.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2009