Should You Make New Year’s Resolutions?

Like many adult Americans, I have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions. On the one hand, as a type-A “go-getter,” I’m drawn to the idea of jotting down a list of nearly-impossible tasks like “Lose 30 pounds,” “Never lose my temper,” or “Learn Mandarin,” and at least, you know, giving it the ol’ college try (only to fail). On the other hand, given humanity’s propensity for failure—only eight percent of Americans keep their New Year’s resolutions—sometimes it seems like it’s a waste of time to even set the goals, let alone attempt to reach them. That said, somewhere between the mountain of success and the valley of despair is a fertile land of possibility and potentiality: Here’s how I might try to do both.

Setting goals isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes New Year’s resolution-naysayers act like the whole thing is bunk. It’s not—exactly. It’s pretty hard to accomplish anything if you don’t even know what the end-result looks like. People set goals every day: go to work, make your bed, eat three square meals, pay your taxes. No one looks down on that. In fact, setting goals in and of itself isn’t the problem; it’s that most people tend to set goals that are too ambitious, especially all at once.

So instead of resolving to quit smoking, quit caffeine, or never get angry with your spouse or your kids, maybe take things one day at a time, or create steps to accomplish those things, like reducing caffeine, cigarettes, or (my son’s favorite), helping me count to ten when I start getting frustrated that something isn’t going according to plan. (“Count to 100 if you’re really frustrated, Mom,” he regularly adds.)

Some people are really motivated and like to make resolutions beyond health and wellness and embrace goals related to the virtues such as “Be kind,” or “Give more to charity.” As altruistic and well-meaning as it might be to fashion virtue-related resolutions, these are also tough. Why? First, they’re vague and broad. Second, they contradict humanity’s innate nature to be selfish and destructive. (This is why no one ever has to teach toddlers to hit, stash their toys, or steal sippy cups.)

While it seems to be en vogue to discourage people from virtue-related resolutions, humanity could certainly use more people in the world who want to do good rather than evil. As with the typical health-related resolutions, the chances of “being kind” or “giving to charity” will only increase with specificity: Sign up to help a local food pantry. Shovel the driveway of the widow next door when it snows. Are these virtue resolutions? I don’t know. But it can’t hurt to show love to people and encourage a sense of community to combat the instincts of our naturally selfish hearts.

Finally, from hurricane Harvey and threats from North Korea to shootings in Las Vegas and Charlottesville, 2017 was a hard year. It was a year when most of us felt powerless to control events happening around us, whether they were natural or human-driven horrors. That’s because most of us are powerless to control the big picture. In fact, most of us are powerless to even control most of our own lives, whether it’s stuff like car accidents and cancer-ridden loved ones to rebellious children and financial problems. Life can be hard and the bumps, whether unexpected or not, can be annoying, painful, or downright excruciating.

The truth of the matter is we cannot instigate worldwide change, predict the future, or even stop tragedies—all we can do is control our own behavior and how we react to difficult times. Try as we might to hope that 2018 will be a “better” year than last, it may not be. There may be twice as many natural disasters, increasing threats of nuclear war, and even more terrorism. We may not be able, individually at least, to prevent or stop some of these things, but we can resolve within ourselves to build the kind of traits, character, and strengths, that can handle disappointment or disaster. So perhaps instead of resolving to make resolutions, or simply even to “Have a better 2018,” figure out how to develop personality and character traits that will help you adapt, overcome, and deal with both the good and the bad times. That might not be a typical New Year’s resolution, but it’s a goal that can have positive effects for a lifetime.

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