It's fun to think about New Year's resolutions, and I always make them (in fact, I make resolutions throughout the year). If my happiness project has convinced me of anything, it has convinced me that resolutions—made right—can make a huge difference in boosting happiness.
So how do you resolve well? This is trickier than it sounds.
Samuel Johnson, a patron saint of my happiness projects, was a chronic resolution-maker and resolution-breaker. He alluded to the importance of making the right resolutions in a prayer he wrote in 1764, when he was fifty-five years old.
“I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake.”
Sound familiar? How often have you thought something along these lines, yourself? The fact that a genius like Dr. Johnson wrote this is very comforting to me.
So, how do you resolve aright, and keep your resolutions? Ask yourself these question:
1. Ask: “What would make me happier?” It might mean more of something good —more fun with friends, more time for a hobby. It might be less of something bad—less yelling at your kids, less nagging of your spouse. It might be fixing something that doesn’t feel right—more time spent volunteering, a move. Or maybe you need to get an atmosphere of growth in your life by learning something new, helping someone, or fixing something that isn’t working properly. (These questions relate to the First Splendid Truth.)
2. Ask: “What concrete action would bring change?” People often make abstract resolutions. “Be more optimistic,” “Find more joy in life,” “Enjoy now,” are hard to measure and therefore difficult to keep. Instead, look for a specific, measurable action. “Distract myself with fun music when I feel gloomy,” “Watch at least one movie each week,” “Buy a plant for my desk” are resolutions that will carry you toward those abstract goals.
3. Ask: “Am I a ‘yes’ resolver or a ‘no’ resolver?” Some people resent negative resolutions. They dislike hearing “don’t” or “stop” (even from themselves) or adding to their list of chores. If this describes you, try to find positive resolutions: “Take that dance class,” “Have lunch with a friend once a week.” Along those lines, my sister told me, "I don't want a negative. I tell myself, 'I'm freeing myself from French fries,' not 'I'm giving up French fries.'"
Or maybe you respond well to “no.” I actually do better with “no” resolutions; this may be related to the abstainer/moderator split. A lot of my resolutions are aimed at getting me to stop doing something, or to do something I don’t really want to do—such as Don’t expect gold stars. There’s no right way to make a resolution, but it’s important to know what works for you. As always, the secret is to know your own nature. (That’s the Fifth Splendid Truth.)
4. Ask: “Am I starting small enough?” Many people make super-ambitious resolutions and then drop them, feeling defeated, before January is over. Start small! We tend to over-estimate what we can do over a short time and under-estimate what we can do over a long time, if we make consistent, small steps. If you’re going to resolve to start exercising (one of the most popular resolutions), don’t resolve to go to the gym for an hour every day before work. Start by going for a ten-minute walk at lunch. The humble resolution you actually follow is more helpful than the ambitious resolution you abandon. Lower the bar!
5. Ask: “How will I hold myself accountable?” Accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions--think AA and Weight Watchers. There are many ways to hold yourself accountable; for example, I keep my Resolutions Chart (if you’d like to see my chart, for inspiration, email me). Or you might want to join or launch a Happiness Project group, for people doing happiness projects together. Accountability is why #2 is so important. A resolution to “Eat healthier” is harder to track than “Eat salad for lunch three times a week.”
If you want to make 2013 a happier year, probably the best place to start is by working on your relationships; strong relationships are key to a happier life. If you're intrigued, consider joining the 21 Day Relationship Challenge. Every day, for 21 days, I'll suggest a resolution. (And don't worry: nothing that takes a lot of time, energy, or money! Many are fun!)
Have you found any strategies or questions that have helped you successfully keep resolutions in the past? What resolution are you making?