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That time of year

If this life of ours be a good glad thing, why should we make us merry,

Because a year of it is gone? But Hope 

Smiles from the threshold of the year to come

Whispering, ‘it will be happier’…”

         Alfred Lord Tennyson.  The Outlawry

January is a time when many of us make New Year resolutions, committing to a better way of life that will, hopefully, make us ‘happier’. We will eat more greens, drink more water, get more sleep, get up earlier, cut down on alcohol, lose weight, write that novel, get fit, quit smoking, work less/more, save more money, buy that BMW, be more mindful, more caring, more assertive. In the words of Mark Twain: “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” Making resolutions is easy.  Sticking to them is not. Within a few weeks our resolve weakens, we lose sight of that better self and decide we are fine as we are — until the next year.

Is there merit in the traditional practice of making New Year resolutions? Can it help us become happier or is it simply a way of repeatedly setting ourselves up for failure, reminding us year-on-year that we are somehow inadequate, need to change but do not have the will to do so?

There has been an explosion of research on the science of happiness in the last 15 years, some of which is applicable to the practice of making New Year resolutions. 

Resolutions that are framed as positive goals are more life-enhancing than those that involve avoidance of an activity. This is because making steady progress, however small, towards a personally valued goal increases life satisfaction. 

A small amount of daily exercise aimed at helping us get fitter has beneficial psychological effects that are not dependent on whether or not we attain fitness. Making progress towards goals also increases the likelihood that we will eventually achieve them.

“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules,” wrote Anthony Trollope. He managed to become one of the most prolific novelists in history, while holding down a full-time job at the British Post Office, by committing to writing no more than three hours a day. He attributed his success to this daily writing habit. Science backs up Trollope’s intuition by showing that whether or not we stick to our goals depends on commitment to a regular implementation plan. Altering our daily habits is a powerful way to alter our lives. But breaking old habits and introducing ones, no matter how small, requires more than simply the will to do it; it requires the willpower. 

In their book,Willpower: Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, authors Dr Roy F Baumeister (PhD), Head of Psychology at Florida State University, US, and Mr John Tierney, science writer with the New York Times, explain that willpower is like a muscle. It is present in all of us to some degree but can be weak or strong, depending on our physical and psychological state. It is weak when we are hungry, tired or stressed. It can be strengthened by practising small acts of self-control on a daily basis, making it more accessible to us when we need it for greater temptations. They also state that while willpower is necessary for forming new habits, once an activity becomes an established practice we no longer require the same amount of willpower to execute it. Thus, daily habits conserve willpower. Setting ourselves too many or too difficult goals is an abuse of willpower and weakens it, making us more likely to choose actions that provide short-term gain, at the expense of our long-term goal. Many weight-loss diets fail because they require individuals to rely too much on willpower. 

So, if you are someone who repeatedly makes New Year resolutions but does not stick to them, or, like me, you have long since abandoned the practice due to repeated failure, what can you do differently this year? Pick one goal and decide how you can move towards it on a daily basis. The beneficial psychological effects of incremental progress will immediately improve wellbeing, which makes it more likely that you will stay the course and add in other goals throughout the year. 

If you cannot do that, it may be because you are less Anthony Trollope and more Oscar Wilde, who believed that “the only way to resist temptation is to yield to it” and who would regret the loss of even his worst habits, as he believed them to be “an essential part of one’s personality”.

Wishing you all a happy New Year and best of luck with those resolutions. 

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