Why are we so skeptical of the things right in front of us? “Turns Out It’s Pretty Good” is a series that examines the path from resisting the well-known to wholeheartedly endorsing it.
For many people, this time of year means setting New Year’s resolutions. Until recently, I was not one of them.
In the past, my feelings about New Year’s resolutions ranged from vague disinterest to outright disdain. The idea of sitting down and writing out a list of goals always struck me as terribly corny and performative — pseudo-spiritual and self-helpy in the worst way. And I know I wasn’t alone.
But near the end of December, during one of the hours-long phone calls that have become a routine part of my pandemic social life, a friend asked what my New Year’s resolutions are for 2021. Perhaps she could hear my eye roll through the phone because before I even responded, she chided me. “Oh, come on. Don’t be so cynical,” she said. “They’re fun. You should just try writing some.” So at her encouragement, I sat down with a piece of paper and a pen and — despite myself — found the process enjoyable, touching even.
A dour view of New Year’s resolutions likely stems, at least in part, from the knowledge that self-improvement campaigns of this kind are rarely successful. As often as people discuss their resolutions on social media, there are stories about how ineffectual resolutions are. The implicit narrative here is obvious: People are idealistic and like to make ambitious pronouncements about the future, but we are also lazy.
Most people already know this. We have heard it time and again. And yet there’s always the flickering, tantalizing belief that this year will be different. I used to think this belief was delusional, but if I’m being honest, there was also a part of me that was intimidated by the idea of making a resolution. Stating a goal aloud or on paper, explicitly and concretely, is a kind of challenge. You either succeed at your resolution or you don’t, but once you’ve made it, you can’t change the fact that it exists.
Like me, you may be surprised to find out that New Year’s resolutions are not a modern concept. There is evidence dating back to the ancient Babylonians, 4,000 years ago, of people using the new cycle of the calendar as an opportunity to make declarations of self-betterment and change. Something about the human mind, it seems, cannot resist the temptation of a fresh start.
Today, New Year’s resolutions are often associated with improved productivity, weight loss, and “self-optimization.” The clichés involve working out, waking up early, or saving money — the kinds of things people always feel they should be doing but never actually want to do. But what if there were another way to think about them? What if resolutions were simply a time to reflect on the past year, on the experiences and projects and relationships that felt meaningful and fulfilling, and to think about how to spend more time and energy where it counts.
When I think about resolutions this way — not as a strict set of goals I must achieve but as a collection of aspirations and dreams for the year to come — the process of putting them down on paper feels hopeful and expansive rather than pressured and fraught with obligation. There are things that brought me joy and fulfillment in the past year: taking walks outside with friends, building bookshelves in my bedroom, watching Jeopardy! with my mom and shouting out all the answers, keeping a journal, playing charades with my cousins on Zoom, planting a tree in my backyard, learning how to cook something new. Why not acknowledge the things I want to move toward and away from?
Yes, earnest self-improvement campaigns are unfashionable. They are corny and naïve and, for the most part, doomed. But maybe that’s precisely why they’re great. Of course, it isn’t realistic to think that we can overhaul our habits and completely transform ourselves overnight. But I found that suspending my disbelief even momentarily, just long enough to forget my weaknesses and imagine what a happier future might look like, was a salutary and refreshing change from the all too dire reality of the world.
Maybe I’ve been thinking about making resolutions the wrong way this whole time. Maybe it’s not about whether you succeed or fail. Maybe it’s simply the trying that counts. In all likelihood, I won’t run a sub-three-hour marathon in 2021 or write a best-selling novel or meditate twice a day or delete all my social media. But I do hope to work harder, to spend more time on creative projects, to improve my writing, to be a better friend and daughter and sister. And if sitting down and writing out those desires makes even an ounce of difference in the person I am next year, then I believe it’s worth my time.