Ditch the New Year’s Diet: Be Like Ben Franklin Instead


January 1st—it is the best of days; it is the worst of days. Of the 364 that follow it, that first day is perhaps the most blessed and the most cursed.

New Year’s Day is the tabula rasa of time—a chance for a clean slate, a fresh start, the beginning of a brand new year. As such, it is a joyful day, greeted by millions of people newly intent on doing better, replacing bad habits with good ones, and thus pursuing happier, healthier lives.

But it is a dark day too; the day the fuse is lit on the ticking time bomb of failure that will eventually explode for most resolution-makers.

Boldly we march into January with noble goals in tow, hoping to be one of the few remaining soldiers of self-improvement still standing after just a few weeks, by which point temptation has already conquered most resolution-makers.

Indeed, by mid-February, most of us sing the same sad song: we came, we tried, we failed. For most of us, when it comes to doing better, we are well-intentioned wimps.

Then again, how well intentioned are we, really? How noble are our resolutions? Are they even worth making, not because of the threat of failure, but because of what they promise to bring?

Year after year, by far the most common goal come January is to lose weight, or some variation on that theme: to eat better, to exercise more, to swap kale for cookies, etc.

Given that the U.S. has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, such goals are probably good ones. Indeed, bettering oneself seems a worthwhile pursuit. But the ultimate motive, the underlying reason for setting that goal, matters too.

Some people set out to shed pounds for the sake of their health, knowing that whittling a waistline can spell the difference between a better life and an early death. But many more people want to lose weight primarily for the sake of display; they are concerned less with living better than with looking better, and concerned most of all with what others think of their appearance and desirability.

For some resolution-makers, then, the real but not admitted resolution is to cultivate the vice of vanity, disguised as the virtue of pursuing health.

That we do this is no surprise. Our culture’s obsession with bodies—their size, their shape, their look, their desirability—makes resolutions about maintaining them understandable.

And there’s nothing wrong with wanting and working towards a healthy body. But by repeatedly limiting our self-improvement focus to the strictly physical, we are frequently blinded to everything else about ourselves that demands just as much, if not more attention. Too often, in setting out to self-improve, we forget that the body is just one part of the self.

Every day, we spend close to an hour inspecting our bodies in the mirror, but do we ever pause to examine our souls? We obsessively weigh our bodies, but what about our minds? What, if anything, do we do to improve our character or cultivate virtue? After all, what good is a healthy body if it houses a diseased soul?

Once upon a time, a young man set out to address these issues with the ultimate resolution: to achieve moral perfection. He was just twenty years old when he embarked on this journey and it had nothing to do with the New Year. He just wanted to become as good a version of himself as possible. So he made a list of virtues worth cultivating, and set out to conquer them, one at a time. Every night, he would reflect on his day, questioning if and how he had failed at say, temperance, frugality, justice, or humility.

He was Benjamin Franklin, and in setting out to master his famous thirteen virtues, he was setting out to master himself.

His task was ambitious and his youthful resolve impressive, but it was his motivation that was most inspiring: he wanted to be a whole human being, not just a body—a man who had mastered mind, spirit, and flesh.

One of Franklin’s thirteen virtues was Resolution. He wrote, “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

So as we each decide what it is we ought to resolve to perform this year, let’s consider the things that are higher and nobler, more interesting and more inspiring, than just losing weight or eating healthier. Let’s follow in Franklin’s footsteps and resolve to be more than just improved bodies, but better people with improved hearts and minds as well.