An homage to the abandoned New Year’s resolution

Photo of New Years Eve at Times Square
gigi_nyc/Creative Commons

My 14-year-old dog rolls onto her back, stomach turned upright, her gaze expectant, waiting. She knows the belly rub will come, as it did the night before, as it will the night after. 

I sigh, for who am I to deny her the simple pleasures of such a simple life, and reach down in trained obedience. As Su-Jee squirms joyfully on the living room rug, tongue lolled out to the side, the very portrait of canine satisfaction, I woefully declare to my half-listening family that I, too, wish to be a dog. 

For starters, dogs want nothing. Beyond dog treats and belly rubs, these furry friends do not yearn for a larger meaning in life or feel the burning desire to accomplish goals. They do not experience lulls of dissatisfaction between pockets of motivation, nor do they fall victim to the grown-up tantrums known as midlife crises.  Unlike humans, their lives are simply too easy and too short to crave purpose. 

So while there may be some light-humored truth to my self-proclaimed desire to live out my days as a house pet, capable of finding true fulfillment through daily naps in splashes of sunlight, I know that as a human being with primal instincts to progress and evolve, such a simple life would never be enough.

Alas, my opposable thumbs and insatiable pursuit of growth prevails. And it’s not just me. Every year, millions of people across the country make vows to themselves to improve their daily lives and habits, coming to the consensus that such total reform should occur on a universal date that symbolizes a fresh start: Jan. 1. That’s right, I’m talking about the infamous New Year’s resolution. 

Thousands of years ago, the Babylonians made promises to their gods to improve their lives in exchange for good favor and luck in the upcoming year. Today, men in their late 40s hustle to the gym in fervent determination to get back their college bodies. Both valiant efforts, no doubt, proving that, no matter how absurdly it may evolve and manifest itself throughout history, tradition never dies.

The resolutions, however, usually do. 

Every year, millions of people across the country make vows to themselves to improve their daily lives and habits, coming to the consensus that such total reform should occur on a universal date that symbolizes a fresh start: Jan. 1.

And why is that? Why do gym memberships suddenly peak and taper off just as quickly come mid-February, while the sewing machine gets carted off to the attic along with a dozen half-finished projects? The earnest desire for tangible change, for genuine learning, is really truly there. So where does it go?

Perhaps we should start by examining the very nature of these promises. The word resolution itself implies the discovery of a solution to a problem. And perhaps that is where the issue starts. By perceiving elements of our lives as problems that require “resolving” in order for us to achieve this next stage of happiness or success, we automatically label the current state of our lives as incapable of bringing such joy. This promotes the idea that we must completely start from scratch and reinvent ourselves into more productive lifestyles, rather than simply reforming and refining our present state of being. Habits are so much easier to tweak than to create out of nothing. I remember the random 3 a.m. bursts of motivation I used to get in the dead of night, where I would vow to set an alarm for 6 a.m. sharp the next morning so I could go for a run and reinvent my entire persona. Unsurprisingly, these impulsive efforts always fell victim to the snooze button. It took me a while to realize that I never have been and never will be a morning person, but that didn’t mean there weren’t alternative ways of adjusting my current lifestyle to increase productivity. Disciplined changes such as restricting screen time during the hours I felt most energized in the evening proved far more effective and fitting for the way I operate. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all mantra to better our lives, nor is there the need to become entirely new people in order to get there.

By perceiving elements of our lives as problems that require “resolving” in order for us to achieve this next stage of happiness or success, we automatically label the current state of our lives as incapable of bringing such joy.

By accepting our lives for what they are and first finding gratitude in how far that has gotten us, we become able to carefully identify how improvement exists to build upon the foundations of our current reality. This subtle change in our perspective transforms the resolution experience from something born out of self-dissatisfaction and negativity into a humble yet plausible opportunity for growth. This can mean the difference between short bursts of inspired motivation (which foster inconsistency and eventually lead to burnout) and small, steady steps of sustainable progress on track toward a bigger goal.

But don’t just take my abstract, motivational-speech-like word for it. Let’s take a look at some of the most common New Year’s resolutions, at least according to a quick Google search.

Lose weight 

What many people mean by this is that they wish to exercise more consistently and intensely or take up a healthier diet or lifestyle. So why don’t we just say that? When more than 70% of the American population claims to be dissatisfied with its bodies, the ease with which we turn to feelings of resentment to fuel our motivation comes as no surprise. But, sometimes, it’s the goal itself that needs changing. Break it down into pieces; have someone hold you accountable; and set attainable steps and milestones along the way. Understand that meeting them isn’t everything. There was a time during quarantine when I woke up every morning and did the exact same YouTube abs routine. At first, I admired my progress and commitment, excited to see the results taking shape. But that initial happiness was soon overshadowed by a deep frustration with myself every time I would skip a day. I lost sight of my original goal, which was to move my body in a way that felt good and healthy, and I forgot that I made that goal out of a desire to take back some control in my life. Instead, with the wrong mindset and an obsession with results, I lost even more control.

Master a new hobby or skill

Whether it be crocheting or cooking, most of us have tried to pick up a new skill to keep life challenging or expand our talents. A key factor here is understanding what you really, truly, wish to gain from it. Do you really want to be the next Gordon Ramsay, or would you actually just like to be capable of producing a home-cooked meal to cut back on dining expenses? Let’s abolish the idea that we have to be good at our hobbies. That we have to monetize it into something profitable or productive to society. That we have anything to prove to anyone beyond ourselves. I objectively suck at visual art, but I’ll still take a canvas every time my sister suggests a family painting night. Take the pressure off yourself, and treat occasional mediocrity as still perfectly acceptable if it brings you joy. The whole point is to have fun, to learn something, to make your life better. 

Save money

This goal seems pretty straightforward. Let the money in your pocket stay in your pocket. But most of us college students have figured out by now that effective budgeting takes far more discipline than it seems. I still struggle with saying no to a quick bite out with friends when the spontaneous trip doesn’t align with my budgeting plan or resisting a quick post-exam pick-me-up boba stop. It comes down to maintaining perspective. The long-term vision has to outlast the temporary highs of material goods and instant gratification. Make a plan, factor in some leeway for yourself if need be — but above all, stick to it. 

With all this being said, there will still always be the resolution that gets shaken down, beat up, and totally abandoned. And that is perfectly OK. 

Sometimes all that matters is that a negative pattern in our lives has been identified, and now a desire has been born to do something about it. Everybody’s path will look different, and that can mean steps backward just as often as progress forward. So long as steps are being taken, that there is a continued practice of intentional movement, there will be change. Because the only way to truly fail is to fall complacent in the familiar comfort of immobility. 

To make a resolution is to set a boundary. It is to declare that something in our lives is just not cutting it anymore, and we owe it to ourselves to make that change. If waiting until Jan. 1 serves as that little push forward to begin, great. If waking up on a random Tuesday in the middle of July creates that same initial spark, great. There are no rules in how we choose to shape our lives. There is just time — and how we choose to spend it. 

So cheers to the resolutions that get fulfilled, and especially to the ones that don’t. We’ll learn from them both, and we’ll just keep making them.

Contact Alyson Lee at [email protected]