The One New Year’s Resolution that Creates Lasting Change
“If you focus on results, you will never change. If you focus on change, you will get results.” ~Jack Dixon
I originally started to write a post offering tons of different New Year’s resolutions and tips to stick to them to create lasting change.
After all, that’s what we bloggers do around December 31st: share our best practices for improving our lives as December rolls into January—compile well-researched suggestions to change and do it consistently, despite knowing most people give up on resolutions within weeks of setting them.
Then I realized that didn’t feel authentic to me.
I don’t actually believe New Year’s Day is any different than any other day. I don’t believe a random point in the time measurement system we’ve created requires us to make a laundry list of things we need to change or improve.
Today is in fact just another day, and tomorrow is one, as well.
I don’t mean to minimize the excitement of the New Year, or any of the days we’ve chosen to celebrate for religious or honorary reasons. I love a big event as much as the next person; in fact, I sometimes bust out the champagne for parallel parking well or using a really big word in a sentence.
What I’m saying is that New Year’s resolutions often fail for a reason, and it’s only slightly related to intention or discipline.
Resolutions fail because they don’t emerge from true breakthroughs—they’re calendar-driven obligations; and they often address the symptoms, not the cause of our unhappiness.
Some resolutions are smart for our physical and emotional health and well-being. Quitting smoking, losing weight, managing stress better—there are all healthy things.
But if we don’t address what underlies our needs to light up, order double bacon cheeseburgers, and worry ourselves into frenzies, will it really help to vow on one arbitrary day to give up everything that helps us pretend we’re fine?
It’s almost like we set ourselves up for failure to avoid addressing the messy stuff.
Why We’re Really Unhappy
I can’t say this is true for everyone, but my experience has shown me that my unhappiness—and my need for coping mechanisms—come from several different places:
- I’m dwelling on the past or obsessing about the future.
- I’m comparing myself to everyone else—their accomplishments, the respect and the attention they garner, and their apparently perfect lives.
- I’m feeling dissatisfied with how I’m spending my time and the impact I’m making on the world.
- I’ve lost hope in my potential.
- I’m expecting and finding the worst in people.
- I’m turning myself into a victim or a martyr, blaming everyone else.
- I’m spiraling into negative thinking, seeing everything as a sign of doom and hopelessness
- I’m assuming there should be a point in time when none of the above happens anymore.
The last one, I believe, is the worst cause of unhappiness. All those other things I mentioned are human, whether we experience them persistently or occasionally.
We’ll do these things from time to time—and they’ll hurt. In the aftermath, we’ll want to do all those different things that every year we promise to give up.
We’ll want to eat, drink, or smoke away our feelings. Or we’ll want to work away our nagging sense of inadequacy. Or we’ll judge whether or not we’re really enjoying life enough and in the very act of judging detract from that enjoyment.
So perhaps the best resolution has nothing to do with giving up all those not-so-healthy things and everything to do with adopting a new mindset that will make it less tempting to turn to them.
An Alternative to Resolutions
Maybe instead of trying to trim away all the symptoms of our dissatisfaction, we can accept that what we we really want is happiness—and that true happiness comes and goes. We can never trap it like a butterfly in a jar.
No amount of medication or meditation can change the fact that we will sometimes get caught up in thoughts and emotions.
What we can do is work to improve the ratio of happy-to-unhappy moments. We can learn to identify when we’re spiraling and pull ourselves back with the things we enjoy and want to do in this world.
Instead of scolding ourselves for all the things we’re doing wrong and making long to-do lists to stop doing them, we can focus on doing the things that feel right to us.
This may sound familiar if you’ve read about positive psychology—I’m no posi-psy expert, and to my knowledge no one is since the industry is unregulated.
But it doesn’t take an expert to know it feels a lot better to choose to nurture positive moments than it does to berate myself for things I’ve done that might seem negative—all while plotting to give them all up when the clock strikes tabula rasa.
4 Simple Steps to Increase Your Happiness Ratio
This is something I’ve been working on for years, so it comes from my personal experience. As I have worked to increase my levels of satisfaction, meaning, and happiness, I have given up a number of unhealthy habits, including smoking, overeating, and chronically dwelling and complaining.
That all required deliberate intention, but it was impossible until I addressed the underlying feelings. I still have some unhealthy habits, but I know releasing them starts with understanding why I turn to them.
Starting today, and every day, regardless of the calendar:
1. Recognize the places where you feel helpless—the housing situation, the job, the relationship, that sense of meaningless. Then plan to do something small to change that starting right now. Acknowledge you have the power to do at least one small thing to empower yourself.
Don’t commit to major outcomes just yet. Just find the confidence and courage to take one small step knowing you’ll learn as you go where it’s heading. As you add up little successes, the bigger picture will become clearer. This isn’t major transformation over a night. It’s a small seed of change that can grow.
2. Identify the different events that lead to feelings that seem negative—talking to your downer cousin, overextending yourself at work, not getting enough sleep, drinking too much.
Whatever it is that generally leaves you with unhappy feelings, note it down. Work to reduce these, making a conscious effort to do them on one fewer day per week, then two, and then three. The key isn’t to completely cut out these things, but rather to minimize their occurrence.
3. Identify the things that create positive feelings—going to the park, painting, looking at photo albums, or singing. Whatever creates feel-good chemicals in your head, note them down and make a promise to yourself to integrate them into your day. As you feel your way through your joy, add to this. Learn the formula for your bliss.
Know that these moments of joy are a priority, and you deserve to receive them. When you’re fully immersed within a happy moment of your own choosing, you’re a lot less likely to get lost dwelling, obsessing, comparing, judging, and wishing you were better.
4. Stay mindful of the ratio.
If you’ve had an entire week that’s been overwhelming, dark, or negative, instead of getting down on yourself for falling that low, remind yourself only your kindness can pull you out. Tell yourself you deserve to restore a sense of balance—to maintain back a healthy ratio.
Then give yourself what you need. Take a personal day at work and take a day trip. Go to the park to relax and reflect. Remind yourself only you can let go of what’s been and come back to what can be.
It’s not about perfection or a complete release from all the causes of unhappiness. It’s about accepting that being human involves a little unhappiness—but how often it consumes us is up to us.
This might not be a lengthy list of unhealthy behaviors you can give up and how, or a long list of suggestions for adventure and excitement in 2011. But all those things mean nothing if you’re not in the right head space to release the bad and enjoy the good.
Resolve what you will this year, but know that happiness is the ultimate goal. It starts in daily choices, not lofty resolutions–on any day you decide to start.