Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Who Needs Another New Year's Resolution?

How about a New Year’s resolution that fits us all and is worth doing?

E. A. Segal
Happy New Year
Source: E. A. Segal

I don’t blame you if you are rolling your eyes and shaking your head as you see this and wishing everyone would stop with the push to make resolutions. How many times do we make a list or mental note to start, or restart, a new habit, promise, routine with the flipping of the calendar page to January 1st? I know all about broken New Year’s resolutions– start a work-out routine, lose weight, don’t get angry, smile more – and these are just the generic ones. Do we really need a specific holiday to bring attention to how well we keep promises to improve ours and others’ lives? Shouldn’t we do that all the time?

Ending one year and starting the next does cause us to pause. We are likely to ask ourselves how did last year go and what can we do better in the new year? A brand-new year feels like a reset. We use a new date so why not make new plans? But after a lifetime of habits, good and bad, it’s hard to change the routine. Our brains, like all our muscles, need work and practice to change well-worn patterns. So, in light of the new year and the reality that too many promises mean nothing changes, what is one resolution worth keeping? What new or reaffirmed habit is worth all the work? What plan for the new year can make a positive difference in my life and in the lives of those around me?

We always hear the adage to follow the Golden Rule, which is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sounds like a good new year’s resolution, right? I disagree. I don’t like the Golden Rule. I think it sets us up for an impossible goal, another new habit that will fail and make us feel bad about our inability to keep our promise. Why does it fail? Because it actually ignores the other person and presumes that we know what is best. Have you ever had a friend do you a favor that you did not ask for, and in reality it was something that the friend really wanted? “Hey, I washed your car, isn’t that great?” but what you wanted was some milk picked up from the grocery store. That is following the Golden Rule because your friend feels a clean car is really important and makes him happy. This is a simple example, but it applies to the big stuff in life too.

Dissing the Golden Rule may seem odd coming from someone who promotes empathy. But instead I am advocating the Silver Rule. What is that? It is the variation that I think makes more sense, and in the end, promotes empathy. The Silver Rule is “do not treat others in ways that you would not want to be treated.” It does not presume to apply what I want to you, but rather keeps me from treating you in a way that is diminishing. If you accidentally bump into me in the store, I might be grouchy because of the crowds and yell “watch where you are going!” Would I want to be yelled at for bumping into someone? Probably not, so at least I should not behave in a way that I would not want to receive. This too is a simple example, but it also applies to the important parts of our lives. The Silver Rule is the minimum, but can lead to empathy.

Empathy asks us to try and share other’s feelings and understand what that means to them. It is other-focused and can require lots of time and effort to work. Don’t get me wrong, empathy is a wonderful goal and I encourage us to work towards that. However, it is not always easy or realistic in the day-to-day interactions with strangers or people with whom we have superficial interactions, like at the grocery store or on the street. And treating people the way we want to be treated might work, but also can be totally wrong because what we want may be very different from what they want. But if we at least promise to not treat others in negative ways, in ways we would not want to be treated ourselves, we can improve relations greatly. So, try following the Silver Rule. It’s realistic, it works, and is a great way to start the new year.

More from Psychology Today

More from Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today