We are a society that loves a quick fix.
It's why the Internet and late-night TV are littered with ads promoting get-rich-quick schemes, fad diets and questionable lifestyle gurus hawking their own personalized brand of reinvention. No time is this barrage of self-help quackery more apparent than when the calendar flips over to a new year. Whole industries are built around the temporarily emboldened masses' desire to transform into their idealized selves. Just ask any longtime gym member about the army of New Year's warriors they have to fend off every January for a chance on the elliptical, only for them to drop like flies once February rolls around.
Now, of course there's nothing inherently wrong with self-improvement, and the New Year, ripe with possibility, is a natural time to reflect on the future. But I think there's something profoundly flawed with the way we approach New Year's resolutions, and it's why so few of them end up working in the long run.
First and foremost, we set ourselves up for failure by attaching life-changing (or, at the very least, lifestyle-changing) goals to a particular window in time, specifically a time of year, fresh off the holidays, when depression levels tend to go through the roof and the prospect of summer seems extremely far away. Also, by constantly associating our resolutions to the New Year, we don't feel so bad come July when we haven't followed through on them. Personal improvement is a daily struggle, and we aren't doing ourselves any favours by buying into the belief espoused by pop psychology that we're always one step away from the life of fulfillment we dream of.
It's the unfortunate result of the continued commodification of self-help; the industry relies on our misguided belief that this one book, diet or self-care regimen is going to solve all our problems, when we know deep down it's more complicated — not to mention a hell of a lot more work — than that. We have the power to make decisions for our betterment every day of the year, why pin it to just one?
Another common problem with New Year's resolutions is they're so rarely grounded in what we actually want. We pick goals based on what we think we should be doing, or what a magazine tells us we should be doing. There's a lot of soul searching involved with figuring out what truly matters to you, and it's undoubtedly easier to forego that question altogether. But if we keep setting half-hearted goals that don't align with what we truly want out of life, then we shouldn't be surprised at the half-hearted results.
It's a vicious cycle, isn't it? We set objectives we don't have the inclination to reach, and then feel guilty when they fall by the wayside, further reinforcing our belief that we need to change. And maybe that's the fatal flaw at the heart of all New Year's resolutions: that we aren't good enough, and perhaps never will be. The whole concept relies on the idea that there's something inside of us that needs amending, that we're coming up short in some way. When you start from that premise, it's shame that guides you the rest of the way, and any therapist will tell you that is not the path to a fully realized, meaningful life.
I suggest we flip the script on that notion. Instead of thinking about all the things we need to fix, let's consider the many things we're already doing right, and build from there. That's not to say we should be ignoring our weaknesses, but self-improvement has to be rooted in a sincere desire for positive change, not in self-flagellation.
It takes time, it takes discipline and it takes a certain knowledge of self that will never arrive overnight. We are, if nothing else, lifelong works in progress, and no flimsy New Year's resolution is going to change that.