As a New Year unfolds, many of us will make earnest resolutions for personal transformation. And soon enough, those resolutions will be guiltily ignored, or simply forgotten. It’s easy to blame ourselves. From Evangelical preachers to business gurus and talk show hosts, there’s a scourge of motivational speakers who are stretching the truth when they tell us we can change our behaviors if we exercise enough motivation and discipline. While that might be truth for the white collar, able-bodied, “majority culture”, middle class, college educated individual with real job possibilities, there are limits on individual change when we’re less fortunate, victims of disaster, or our jobs have disappeared through mechanization or globalization. Even the American Psychological Association has begun to focus more attention on the link between human rights and mental health. Many positive psychologists, too, recognize that it is darn near impossible for everyone to thrive without good government, a sense of community, and the material resources we all need to cope.
This New Years, rather than committing to make an individual change, commit to changing the world around you so that you have to change regardless of your level of motivation. We thrive or fail most often because of what we are given rather than what we have.
Let me give an example. When I heard Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a University of Massachusetts Professor of Medicine, present to an enthusiastic crowd of 3,000 in a Washington, DC ballroom, he spent 87 minutes of his 90-minute presentation reminding us that our minds are powerful tools that can shape our emotions and behaviors. We choose to be angry. We choose to languish in cycles of negative thought. We may even choose the illnesses that are to be expected after prolonged periods of stress. Like many advocates of mindfulness, he reminded us, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
It would be an empowering thought, if it were true. New Year’s resolutions need more than wishful thinking. They need more than motivation, too. The fact is that no one learns to surf without a surfboard, a coach, a lifeguard and, when things go really wrong, an ambulance, health care coverage, and a network of family members to feed us while our broken bones mend. A positive mindset may help the healing, but so little of our future happiness depends on our thinking, beliefs, or attitudes when we’re lying broken on a beach.
This New Year's, let’s think more about changing the opportunities around us than just changing ourselves. For example, if you want to lose weight, you could use any number of cognitive approaches to changing your lifestyle from an app on your smartphone to a Fitbit on your arm and periods of meditation. Those are all good ideas, but they’re not likely to create enduring change unless other things change around you. That’s why when schools changed their cafeteria food and gave children healthier options, there was little noticeable decrease in levels of obesity. What the children didn’t eat at school, parents provided at home with cupboards stocked full of pop, chips and other high calories foods. But when schools began working with parents to limit the children’s access to poor quality food at school and at home, children become healthier. Add to this changes to children’s routines that required them to walk more and the effect was amplified.
Motivation Comes From the Outside
So, before considering another diet, and the personal motivation it takes to be “good”, consider changing the opportunity structures around you. Change your parking spot so you have to walk further to work. Or better yet, use public transit if it’s available. If there is no public transit, that should be a clue that something is desperately wrong with your community. A community that forces people to use their cars to get everywhere is a poorly planned community that will contribute to health risks among those who live there. Maybe, instead of a diet, you’d be better to move to a community where you can do more walking to get your groceries, see your friends, and get to work.
We can take any New Year’s resolution and play this same game. How much easier would it be to change the world around us than to change ourselves?
After all, far more of our success is accounted for by the simple truth of what Warren Buffett has whimsically called the ovarian lottery. There is indeed a lot of scientific evidence to support this perspective of health as something given to us rather than something we design on our own. As one of its last editorials of 2016, the staff at The Lancet looked back at the many failures of the past year, such as the forcible displacement of almost 1% of the Earth’s population due to war in places like Syria, the ever growing number of climate change refugees, and of course those who died because of preventable diseases. But there were also good news stories, from the near eradication of polio to the hope for a vaccine for Ebola.
On a global scale, it’s much easier to see that our health is intricately tied to the way we vote and who sets the health priorities around us. No helmets required when riding a motorcycle? Then head trauma is your destiny, or the destiny of another rider you know. When cigarettes are kept cheap and ad campaigns make kids think smoking is sexy, lung cancer rates will skyrocket as they have in China.
Health care is the same. The World Health Organization is looking for an advocate for universal health coverage. Only the most inequitable societies like those in low and middle-income countries (and a rare few high-income countries too) are unable to provide health care to all of their citizens. Health care, laws governing things like meat inspection and highway safety, are much more likely to have the biggest impact on the quality of our lives. Furthermore, change the rules around us and the structures that keep us safe and our health is likely to be much improved even if we’re unmotivated to change.
Now to be fair this holiday season, if you have everything else going for you and you want to sandpaper the few remaining rough edges, a good New Year’s promise to exercise more or eat less has merit. But sustaining that change will need much more than personal motivation. Sadly, it’s rare that I hear the gurus of self-determination address the everyday inconveniences that cause the stress that compel us to overeat in the first place. Economic downturns and migrating capital are much more important than individual motivation when we're trying to understand stress. Change the way our world is run and many of our personal problems will disappear too. Airlines, for example, are now being forced to implement a passengers’ bill of rights to better protect us when we're bumped off flights or hopelessly delayed. Positive thinking may keep us from losing our minds waiting in line at the service desk when re-booking a flight, but meditation won’t get us a new flight or compensation for the one we were kicked off of.
A Resolution to Change the World
So this year, rather than practicing another self-help mantra and telling yourself that your life is yours to control, how about expanding the list of things that need to change? How about committing to changing the world around you to make it a bit more fair and opportunity rich? What about promising to resist, to make more noise, or be part of a collective vision for change? What about changing where you live, how you move around, and who you spend your time with? The results may be more sustainable because these external changes will compel individual change. It is, in my experience, easier to change the world around us than changing ourselves if we expect those changes to endure longer than the leftovers in the fridge.