An Alternative Approach to New Year's Resolutions | January 10, 2014

An Alternative Approach to New Year's Resolutions

A little more than a week ago, 40% of us made New Year's Resolutions. Statistics show that next week, by mid-January, 50% of us will have broken them.

One way to increase your chances of achieving your objective is to make SMART goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant time-specific goals, so instead of saying "I want to lose weight," you make a more specific, measurable goal such as "I want to lose 3 pounds by February 1st." However, this approach advocates a formula more than a lifestyle.

I have to confess that I have never quite understood the concept of New Year's Resolutions. The idea of starting something new on January 1st seems somewhat artificial. Why work to change our behavior based on some arbitrary date rather than based on the need for change itself? Why is it that we want to start something new in the dead of winter plumb in the middle of the school year?

For those of you who have made New Year's Resolutions and are keeping them, good for you: sometimes this yearly ritual can have positive results; it might enhance your life and help you reach goals you have been wanting to reach. A yearly ritual provides an opportunity to take stock of your year and provide incentive for reflection. All of this is good and can be very positive. But today I would like to offer an alternative perspective to this tradition that prompts us to examine all the ways our lives are wrong.

What if instead of looking at all the things we want to change, we considered all the aspects of our lives that make us happy?

What if rather than looking at our flaws, we celebrated our strengths?

And what if rather than looking at the final product, we focused on the process itself?

Let me be clear: I am not advocating complacency. In my mind, nothing replaces hard work. I am advocating that we consider changing the way we think about New Year's Resolutions: I propose that we think in positives, that we remember our strengths and that we frame our action as a process rather than a product.

Most of the time when we are coming up with our New Year's Resolutions, we think about all the things that are wrong with us. Why make ourselves constantly grasp at those elusive and relative terms of wanting to work harder, of wanting to be better, faster stronger, thinner, more beautiful, more ostensibly successful?

Psychologist Shawn Achor says our theories about happiness are all wrong. He posits that they are backward because we believe that if we work harder, we will be more successful and if we are more successful then we will be happier. Thus, every time we are successful, we make achievement more and more impossible because every success leads to a higher bar and more pressure, making happiness more and more elusive.

When I was a sophomore in high school I thought, if I could ever master the Hayden cello concerto in C major, I would be thoroughly satisfied with myself as a cellist. My senior year in high school I performed the Hayden C major, and guess what—that wasn't enough; I was not satisfied.

Achor proposes a way to reverse this formula and begin with happiness. His research has shown that writing down 3 gratitudes a day for 3 weeks dramatically affects one's sense of well-being and happiness. Similarly, journaling about 1 positive experience in the last 24 hours for 21 days in a row results in a similar sense of optimism and well-being. This process rewires our brains to be happier in the present, and with this increased sense of contentment, people are able to work harder, faster, more efficiently and more intelligently because happiness lights up all the learning centers in our brains. These positive feelings result in greater intellectual engagement, increased creativity, energy, imagination and 30% more productivity.

My second suggestion is to remember and celebrate your strengths. Do you even know what your strengths are? One healthy activity to do in the new year is to be able to identify the areas where you excel, and this process will give you a clearer sense of who you are.

When we are young, we tend to believe that we can do anything. If you walk into a first grade class and ask "Who can draw?" all the hands will go up. If you ask these same children "Who can play soccer?" "Who can do math?" "Who knows about animals?" Chances are all of the children will raise their hands with every question.

What happens when we get older is that we start to think in terms of what we are not good at rather than the opposite. So my second challenge is for you to identify your strengths, and if you don't know what they are, ask a friend to do it for you. It could be an eye-opening experience.

My final suggestion is that you think more about process and less about product. As many of you know, our curriculum at MBS is process-oriented. Your teachers assess the means by which you create and learn as well as what you produce. They look at the process of problem solving, of reading and writing as well as the final product.

As we move into the final five months of the year,

Think in positives, celebrate your strengths and enjoy the journey.


The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work
By Shawn Achor
Crown Publishing Group
New York, NY 2010


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