When I went to confession, an awfully long time ago, I would walk out of the church grounds feeling cleansed, bright, shiny and new. Part of this feeling was what the church used to call a “firm purpose of amendment” and I suspect it’s related to the custom of making new-year resolutions, even by people who never set foot in a church.
The Babylonians used to make an annual resolution to pay money they owed and to give back tools they had borrowed. First they had 12 days of festivities. Sounds a lot like Christmas and New Year.
Resolutions are never about doing worse this year than last year. They are about a “better you”. New Year resolutions, in other words, are always about a fresh start. A fresh start implies hope and this, I think, makes resolutions worthwhile from an emotional view – they give us a lift. It’s hard to say how many people keep to their resolutions. (I have seen figures ranging from 8 per cent to 50 per cent).
Even a modest result – keeping some if not all of our resolutions – is not bad when you consider the ease with which we make them. We could also say that resolutions have a ‘priming’ effect. Smokers and ex-smokers know that you resolve to give up smoking many times before you succeed. Each of those failures takes you closer to success. And each time you resolve to give up, you emphasising to yourself that you don’t want to be a smoker.
David McWilliams: Although wealthy, Ireland feels completely different from most other wealthy countries
And breaking a resolution at one stage doesn’t mean you can’t pick it up again – and again – during the year. David Robson, author of The Expectation Effect, writes on the BBC website: “If you’ve started to founder in February, for example, you might make a new commitment to start again at the beginning of March – a small act of reframing that should give you the boost of the fresh-start effect all over again.”
So here are some resolutions strategies that I think might work for me and might work for you too.
The first is this: remember that, for most of us, most of the time, life isn’t about staying alive, but about living. You don’t have a laugh with friends or colleagues to stay alive but to ‘live’. What did you stop doing during the pandemic that used to be part of ‘living’ but that you haven’t taken up since because you became institutionalised like millions of others? I mean meeting people, going for walks, seeing movies in actual cinemas, going to football matches – whatever you stopped that you liked and that you haven’t got around to yet. Getting back to things you like is one way of ‘living’ more this year and is worthy of a resolution.
Try starting off the year with a list of resolutions that are easy to implement. Having activities on a list makes them purposeful – and implementing purposes can get you out of a blue mood. I realise that this approach runs counter to concepts such as ‘no pain, no gain’ but you can get around to that later on if you really think you need it.
Janus, the two-faced god after whom January is named, looked to the past with one face and to the future with another. What worked for you in the past year that you could do again this year? You could apply the same approach to last month, last week or yesterday. This is because much of the processing power of the emotional brain is given to watching out for threats (social as well as physical). Many of us, especially people who are anxious, focus constantly on the threats. This can become a form of ‘anticipatory anxiety’ in which we watch out all the time for what might go wrong.
So it can be very easy to forget to note what went right. One way to lift yourself out of anxiety might be to reflect on what went right and to plan to do more of it.
Happy new year.
– Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)