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Turning the Leaf

The list of resolutions for any given year is limitless and the list of failures is just as long



This year I'll eat healthier. This year I'll work harder than ever. This year I'll go to Burning Man. This year I'll cut out weekday partying. This year I'll throw away my TV and buy an easel. This year I'll walk more and drive less. This year I'll finish that screenplay. This year I'll spend more time with my grandparents. This year I'll switch coffee for tea. This year, no more pizza.

The list of resolutions for any given year is limitless and the list of failures is just as long. A 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that 88 per cent of all resolutions end in failure.

Of course, this never stops us from actually resolving to improve ourselves in some way, to commit to finally turning that leaf over and narrowing the gap between "real" self and "wannabe" self, impending failures be damned. This year we're really going for it.

I made one too. I resolved to trim the fat and get a flat stomach. I joined CrossFit, a brand of personal fitness regime that includes varied and very intense exercises that, had I stuck with it, would have resulted in a physique resembling someone closer to Ryan Gosling rather than Paul Giamatti.

Now, close to three months later and the stint at Crossfit a fading memory, the cold steel of my belt buckle is still pushing up underneath the folds of my stomach. I am now part of the 88 per cent.

What went wrong? Laziness?

Partly, but there's more to the story than that according to Mark Holder, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who studies the science of wellbeing. He says the success to attaining goals is a matter of how they're framed.

"Concrete, positively-framed goals work better," he says.

He offers the example of two couch potatoes who want to change their habits. Couch Potato #1 states that he's going to lose weight. The likelihood of success is diminished because the process, "is very pervasive... It's not very concrete or clear."

Couch Potato #2 states that he's going to exercise three times week. His goal is related but it's more specific. Once the goals are achieved, the checklist has been ticked off and the desire to further the self-improvement continues to grow.

"It feels really good to check things off lists," he says. "Finishing what we start, completing goals increases our happiness."

In doing so, we're in a constant battle with ourselves to shrink the difference between our ideal selves and our real selves; an experience psychologists have called "discrepancy theory." Holder says that we're happiest when the space between our two selves is the smallest, yet no one quite succeeds in eradicating that space completely.

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