We keep making resolutions and hoping for success, despite evidence to the contrary

January 14, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

OUR NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS ARE THE spiritual equivalent of a bucket of soapy water and a clean set of rags.

This is the time of year -- not spring -- when we look for a clean start. The new calendar signals a new beginning, a chance to discard the past and write a fresh future.

This is the time of year when we believe we can rid ourselves of old habits as easily as we can clean out old closets. It is more than making a few resolutions. We believe we can change the way we live.

And then we fail.

After a week or a month, our self-discipline evaporates and we pick up our bad habits again and feel the double disgust of weakness and failure.

We know what to do, we know how to live, but we can't seem to do it for longer than a day or a week. What made us think we could change?

Not even a stern talking to, from ourselves to ourselves, can keep us on the path to righteousness. The rational has no place at the table, or we wouldn't be in this mess. The comfort of food or booze or sloth is just too strong to resist.

These slips send us down a vortex of regret and remorse and defeat. And all around us, friends and family take no notice of our despair. They never expected us to succeed in keeping our resolutions because we never have before. Neither have they.

I wonder a lot about this attempt to remake ourselves by initiating little lifestyle changes at the first of every year.

Do we think giving up sugar will make us more generous? Do we believe exercising three times a week will make us less selfish or less resentful?

Or do we believe that giving up sugar and exercising are the right things to do, and if we are successful, we will be good people?

It makes no sense to attempt to change in January, when the sun is low in the sky and the days are short.

Whether we are sidelined by this gray season or simply feeling as dreary as the weather, it is the time of year when we are least likely to have the energy to remake ourselves.

And what makes us think we can? What makes us believe we are captains of our ship? Maybe we are just storm-tossed on the sea of evolution, heredity, social norms and quantum physics.

Maybe, as Dennis Overbye writes in an essay on free will in The New York Times, "our conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control."

What if, as he suggests, free will is not a power we have over our actions but a perception we have of ourselves? That it is no more real than the perception I have of myself as funny or tall.

Making a New Year's resolution is, therefore, an act of faith. Like saying a prayer or making the sign of the cross, with just as much certainty of success. But we keep doing it, as if our prayers are always answered.

Making a New Year's resolution could be the definition of insanity: doing the same thing but expecting a different result.

Or it could be the definition of optimism, a ritual of hope.


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