It's that time of year. You sit down with a pen and pad.... get in shape... sort out finances... sort our career... pursue hobbies... change attitude...
But didn't you make exactly the same list last year?
I'm going to suggest why you should not make New Year's resolutions. At least you shouldn't make them if you want to have a happy and purposeful year ahead.
But, you say, New Year's resolutions are goals and don't I need to have clear goals in life?
Yes, it is good to have a sense of purpose in life, but being overly fixated on setting and achieving goals can, well... get in the way of achieving your goals and stop you living a happy life.
Read on and find out three good reasons why you should not make New Year's resolutions.
1. Resolutions make you unhappy
Why do you make resolutions? The simply answer is that you are seeking happiness. It may seem good to make grand plans for acheiving happiness, but what is actually happening is that you fall into the trap of making your happiness dependent on future success.
Why is this a trap? Actually there are two traps, the Success Trap and the Future Trap.
The Success Trap is where you believe some external measure of "success" is going to make you happy. "I'll be happy when I loose weight," "I'll be happy when I get that pay rise". We live increasingly in a world where we are told that success above all else is what gives meaning to life. Does it?
The reality tends to be quite different. You loose the pounds, you get that promotion, there is a brief moment of feeling victorious and then dissatisfaction and self-doubt creeps back in. The people who, in the world's terms, are most successful are often the least happy. There is more meaning to life than success.
The Success Trap gets compounded by the Future Trap. This is where you focus not on the reality of where you are now but on some fairy tale future where everything will be perfect. You create a mythical version of you, a you who is not overweight, in debt, who doesn't procrastinate etc. You compare yourself to this non existent future you and see only what is wrong in the present. Far from being a motivator, such future orientated thinking is a recipe for unhappiness in the here and now.
There are strong reasons to believe that happiness does not come from focusing on the acheivement of future goals, but from being grounded in present reality and particularly from purposeful, responsible and skillful actions in the here and now. Find meaning in present experience and goals and outcomes will take care of themselves.
Japanese culture has a word for this, Ikigai. Ikigai is the discovery of life's meaning and happiness through being in the here and now, letting go of ego and pursuing harmony and sustainability by care and attention to the small things life offers you right now.
2. Resolutions don't work
Yes, resolutions simply do not work. If they did work, you would not be making the same resolutions year after year. Here are some good reasons why resolutions do not work:
Most resolutions are too big, vague and hopelessly idealistic. Positive change comes about not by big revolutionary leaps but by small evolutionary actions in the present that grow into habits. You will, for example, be more likely to get in shape by going for a short brisk walk now (and again tomorrow etc) rather than by some grandiose plan to join a gym and workout five times a week for an hour. There is a deeper lesson here about not finding meaning in distant outcomes, but in process... process in the here and now. Focus on enjoying that walk rather than fantasizing a future thin version of you.
Resolutions give you a false sense of control. You are not God! You cannot predict or control the future. But when you make resolutions you are acting like you are God. You are decreeing that it shall be so. You are demanding of the universe that it fulfills you wishes. Stuff happens. Stuff happens that is simply outside your sphere of control. People get ill, relationships end, economies collapse. Making resolutions about things you can't control gives you a sense of failure.
What's more, you don't get anywhere by your efforts alone. Your life is indivisibly interwoven with those around you, society, economy, environment etc. Ultimately everything you receive or achieve in this life is through the grace of others. Yet we delude ourselves that it is by our own efforts.
The Taoists speak of wu wei the effortless living that arises when we stop trying to battle circumstances and align with the flow of what is actually happening. So stop trying to control everything, accept and adapt to the unpredictability and interconnectedness of life.
Resolutions actually discourage you and limit present happiness. You probably think they motivate you, but often the opposite is true. Fixation on idealised outcomes focuses your attention on the gap between reality and ideal. You feel a sense of frustration all the time you have not met your goal. You are stressed by every setback and obstacle. As I hinted earlier, you trade your current happiness for some putative future state that is always out of reach. Suppose your goal is to get fit and loose 10kg. Then you sit in the bath and look down at your beer belly, your moobs and your scrawny limbs. "I'm a failure", you think, I'll never get there...
3. Deciding is not doing
Suppose you make that resolution to go to the gym five times a week. You feel a warm glow of satisfaction, reach for another glass of mulled wine and wait for Big Ben to usher in the New Year. What have you done? Nothing. Making a decision is just a thought in your head. A decision changes nothing in the real world. The only thing that creates change is action. You get somewhere by the actions you take day by day, moment by moment. What is needed is not decisions but purposeful, responsible, skillful actions. Action now. So focus less on deciding and more on doing. Stop reading this article and go for that brisk short walk.
Instead of making resolutions...
...let go of those overblown, grandiose plans. Stop focusing on future goals and come back to what you are doing, and what needs to be done, right now. Stop deciding to,,, stop wanting to... and do it instead.
Rather than resolutions, I suggest that New Year is a wonderful opportunity for deep and honest self-reflection. There is a powerful practice created in the mid 20th century by Yoshimoto Ishin, a deeply spiritual Japanese businessman. In Naikan, you withdraw to a place of quiet and solitude and reflect on three questions:
- Who or what have I received from?
- To whom or what have I given?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused?
Naikan can be a daily practice, a periodic one and indeed a lifetime practice. Reflection on these three simple questions takes you out of the "super me" myth of your life and brings into sharp focus the reality of who you are, what you do and how you impact on the world. Through such self-reflection you see more clearly your interconnectedness with the universe, you develop deep appreciation and gratitude for the grace and love that sustains your life and you awaken your desire to give, to be a contributor rather than a consumer.
You want to get in shape? Instead of making a resolution to go the the gym that you will not keep, take ten minutes now to reflect on the gift of life that was given to you by your parents; on the miracle of life that is your body; on all that is given to you by life that enables your body to receive what it needs to sustain and protect itself; on your mortality and and the preciousness of every day of life in this body. If you reflect deeply and honestly, why would you not, from moment to moment and day to day do whatever is necessary to nurture the beautiful gift of life you embody? Reflect and then act...
Naikan, and similar reflective practices, become the gateway to discovering your Ikigai or purpose in life. They are the foundation of action that is skillful, responsible and purposeful. They are the basis of a life that is effortlessly and impeccably in alignment with the flow of Life itself.
Surely the world needs more of that?
So I wish you a new year full of meaning. If you've enjoyed this article do please share it.
What is the most important thing to do in the effort to improve ourselves? First, reflect upon yourself. By seeing the reality of yourself, you will gain insight into the path of heaven. Manshi Kiyozawa.
Mentor, transformational coach and author
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