previously posted on Blogspot

Making New Years Resolutions has fallen out of fashion. In fact its even become popular to make an anti-resolution resolution, by saying “This year I resolve not to make any resolutions”, which has the double advantages of being both confusing and having its assured failure inbuilt, because you have to break the resolution in order to make the resolution which resolves not to make any resolutions. Of course you could always resolve to “not make any resolutions after this one”, which would solve the initial paradox, but is probably as just as doomed to failure as the resolution to “give up cigarettes after this one” or “start eating healthy after this Mars Bar”.

By why do we make even make resolutions? Humans must have had some reason to start making them in the first place.

Well, it appears that the history of New Years resolutions started in Rome around the time of Julius Caesar, and generally took a moral flavour. Things like “I will be good to others”, something which is generally taken to be a sign of good morals. After Christianity was adopted in the 4th century the focus changed, from moral resolutions to prayers, to fasting and to a feast on January 1st which held the worrying name of “The Feast of the Circumcision”. I shudder to think what might have been on the menu.

But to find something more like the lists of resolutions we make these days we should turn to the Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards, who wrote 70, carefully thought out resolutions in his Letters and Writing in 1723. Whether or not modern resolutions come from the Puritans notoriously strict mindset, reading through Edward’s list does bring up uncomfortable similarities to the way we mentalise improvement.

Things like Resolution Number 10:“Resolved, when I feel pain, to think to the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.”

This sounds to me a lot our “no pain no gain” attitude, which extends beyond exercise, and says “if it’s hard then good, it should be hard.”

Resolution Number 37 sounds familiar:“Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed, and wherein I have denied myself.”

Any of us who has lain awake at night mentally beating ourselves up about all the stupid things we’ve done during the day will recognise this. It says “give yourself hell for failing.. every day”.

Lastly, you might also suffer the mental anguish presented in Resolution 24:“Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavour to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.”

Not, I must add, that I’m not in the habit of doing evil things and I’m sure you aren’t either, but its difficult to convince the mind that something “isn’t all that bad” when it gets started on such a mental forensic warpath. I certainly use his method of dealing with past failings, even though it consistently doesn’t work: i.e. mentally repeating it, wishing I hadn’t done it, thrashing it like a dog with a rubber chicken and hoping that the past behaviour might just vanish.

However, the problem with Edward’s resolutions is not the ideas they present, or not all of them at least. Resolution 6, for example, says“Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.”Which is pretty sound advice as far as I can see.

The problem is that he doesn’t give himself a break. Ever. And neither do we. None of resolutions say something like“I resolve, if I let one of these resolutions slide a bit, to give myself a soft slap on the wrist, say ‘oops, oh well tomorrow is another day’ and remind myself that it’s okay and, I’m doing great.”You can bet that he’s going to give himself a hard time about it when he slips up. Guilt will drown his good intentions. Apparently, the moral “I will be good to others” never seems to extend to “I will be good to myself.”

However, despite all this I don’t think that we should just give up on trying to improve ourselves. It’s a wonderful thing to recognise that you want to do something better and actually make that first step to changing it.

Unfortunately, like our Puritan friend, we’re obsessed with feeling guilty. We identify with it so much that a whole marketing strategy was born from it. We’re sold “Guilty Pleasures” all the time, and we buy into it.

Most people firmly believe that they are simply unable to improve the things they don’t like about themselves. Their group of friends will empathise and stories of failed resolutions will be passed around and pretty soon they get to the point where considering yourself a failure is “the in thing” and self-improvement itself becomes a “guilty pleasure”.

Perhaps this is because guilt may be primarily a social reaction. By getting social appeasement for our guilt I guess we lessen its effect. Unfortunately, in this case social appeasement comes by agreeing that you are unable to change, and so strengthens your resolve that you can’t.

There are several pretty good, specific strategies to succeed with your New Years Resolutions (e.g. herehere and here). Things like “pick one resolution”, “make it specific”, “break it down into actionable steps.”, “aim to change small behaviours instead of vague generalisations”. They’re covered in detail elsewhere so I won’t write them out again here.

I think the most important thing is to remind yourself that failing every so often is fine. In fact, it’s not even “failing” and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve failed completely. No one else is going to be standing over you to be the voice saying “actually you’re doing really well, keep at it” so you have to be that voice too.

But please, make it a nice, friendly voice and not the voice of a 18th century Puritan.

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