The Meaning of New Year's Resolutions
By Alex Epstein (Chicago Sun-Times and Vancouver Sun, December 30, 2006; Montgomery Advertiser, January 4, 2008)
Every New Year's Eve millions of Americans make New Year's resolutions. Whether the resolution is to get out of debt, to spend more time with loved ones, or to quit smoking, these resolutions have one thing in common: they are goals to make our lives better.
Unfortunately, this ritual commitment to self-improvement is widely viewed as something of a joke--in part because New Year's resolutions go so notoriously unmet. After years of watching others--or themselves--excitedly commit to a new goal, only to abandon the quest by March, many come to conclude that New Year's resolutions are an exercise in futility that should not be taken seriously. "The silly season is upon us," writes a columnist for the Washington Post, "when people feel compelled to remake themselves with new year's resolutions."
But such a cynical attitude is false and self-destructive. Making New Year’s resolutions does not have to be futile--and to make them is not silly; done seriously, it is an act of profound moral significance that embodies the essence of a life well-lived.
Consider what we do when we make a New Year's resolution: we look at where we are in some area of life, think about where we want to be, and then set ourselves a goal to get there. We are tired of feeling chubby and lethargic, say, and want the improved appearance and greater energy level that comes with greater fitness. So we resolve to take up a fun athletic activity--like tennis or a martial art--and plan to do it three times a week.
Is this a laughable act of self-delusion? Hardly. If it were, then how would anyone ever achieve anything in life? In fact, to make a New Year's resolution is to recognize the undeniable reality that successful goal-pursuit is possible--the reality that everyone at one time or another has set and achieved long-range goals, and profited from doing so. Indeed, not only is it possible to achieve long-range goals, it is necessary for success in life. To make a New Year's resolution is also to recognize the undeniable reality that rewarding careers and romances do not just happen automatically--that to get what we want in our lives, we must consciously choose and achieve the right goals. We must be goal-directed.
Unfortunately, a goal-directed orientation is missing to a large extent in too many lives. It is all too easy to live life passively, acting without carefully deciding what one is doing with one's life and why. How many people do you know who are in the career they fell into out of school, even if it is not very satisfying--or who have children at a certain age because that's what is expected, even if it's not what they really want--or who spend endless hours of "free time" in front of the TV, since that's the most readily available form of relaxation--or who follow a life routine that they never really chose and don't truly enjoy, but which has the force of habit?
Too often, the goal-directedness embodied by New Year's resolutions is the exception in lives ruled by passively accepted forces--unexamined routine, short-range desires, or alleged duties. It is the passive approach to happiness that makes so many resolutions peter out, lost in the shuffle of life or abandoned due to lost motivation. More broadly than its impact on New Year's resolutions, the passive approach to happiness is the reason that so many go through life without ever getting--or even knowing--what they really want.
It is a sad irony that those who write off New Year's resolutions because so many fail reinforces the passive approach to life that causes so many resolutions--and so many other dreams--to fail. The solution to failed New Year's resolutions is not to abandon the practice, but to supplement it with a broader resolution--a commitment to a goal-directed life.
This New Year's, resolve to think about how to make your life better, not just once a year, but every day. Resolve to set goals, not just in one or two aspects of life, but in every important aspect and in your life as a whole. Resolve to pursue the goals that will make you successful and happy, not as the exception in a life of passivity, but as the rule that becomes second-nature.
If you do this, you will be resolving to do the most important thing of all: to take your happiness seriously.
Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff
at ARI between 2004 and 2011.