A Defense of New Year’s Resolutions (That THEY Don’t Want You to Know About)

Around this time of year my news feed is infected with click-baity articles or facebook statuses about how New Year’s resolutions are stupid or bad or whatever and “I’m better than people who make NY resolutions because I recognize that every day, NAY! every second! is an opportunity to redefine myself for the better. So there, you philistines! Shield thine eyes from the light of my transcendence!” 

Anyway, here are a few counter click-baity responses to internet self-righteous anti-NY resolution sentiment. 

Reasons for NY Resolutions THEY Don’t Want You to Know About
Reply 1: Fuck you. Get over yourself. 

Reply 2: This may seem odd coming out of a philosopher’s mouth but maybe it’s cuz it comes from experience: Too much reflection on how to live can be a bad thing. It takes you out of ‘just living’. While you’re thinking about how you ought to live, life is passing you by–one missed experience at a time (#gradschool). Descartes himself–of the Meditations–reprimands Princess Bohemia for being over-reflective. (Of course in this case it was cuz she had a devastating challenge that he couldn’t answer, but let’s pretend that it was for some other reason). 

Also, didn’t Socrates famously say that the unexamined life is not worth living? True. But it doesn’t mean you need to examine it all the time. You have to have experiences to examine in the first place.

OK, so there you have it. Too much navel-gazing can pull you out of your life. You emerge from your contemplative state only to find you’ve missed out on living. 

Where was I going with all this? Ah, yes. It’s actually not a good thing to be reflecting all the time, and so having culturally agreed upon reminders to do so is helpful: No need to do it all the time. You’ll be reminded at least once a year to do so and you’ll probably do it on your birthday too–especially for each birthday after 30 (e.g., “Where the fuck did I go wrong?””How do I undo this mess?”). 

Make Resolutions and Keep Them Using This One Weird Trick! (Motivational Speakers Hate Me!)
Having resolutions as a social practice leverages the social resources that will make us more likely to keep them. (I said “more likely”, not “guaranteed”.) Many scienticians agree that the most powerful motivational forces are social forces and NY resolutions engage these forces in various ways. 

First, choosing your goals is a combination of an individual and social act.  The goals we choose are individual to us but they are also often the result of social feedback we’ve been getting over the year. If you’re a student and your professors keep telling you that you need to work harder, this might be a sign that you should work harder. If your friends keep telling you that you don’t hang out enough with them, maybe this is sign that you could be a better friend.  If people seem to avoid conversations with you this might be a sign that you need to be a better listener or need to consider your words more carefully. I’m not sayin’….I’m just sayin’…

Resolutions are also social in that we look to others as possible models for the types of behaviors and goals to pursue. It doesn’t mean we’re going to mimic someone else exactly. Looking to others we admire (or despise!) gives us a point of departure to craft a goal suitable to ourselves and our particular circumstances. It’s a way to activate our imagination such that we can see possibilities for ourselves.

As I mentioned, many scienticians agree that the most powerful motivational forces are social. If you publicly declare your goals (to friends, family, to every damn person on social media, or all of the above) you won’t want to look like a dumbass by failing. Social pressure can be used to your advantage. Fear of shame is an excellent motivator. But fear of public shame isn’t the only possible benefit from publicly declaring your new goals. If you aren’t surrounded by a bunch of assholes, some of the people to whom you declare your goals can (gasp!) offer you encouragement and actually help you stay on track in those moments where your own willpower subsides. Confiding our resolutions to (carefully selected) others creates a support network that can help us actually achieve our resolutions.

Of course, some of you are thinking, “I don’t need nobody to help me with my goals. It’s all about survival of the fittest and I can handle my shit.”  Ok, maybe you can. Good for you. You’re Jesus. Now, go back to reading your Ayn Rand books in the corner.

The bottom line is that while it’s true in theory (“here goes the philosopher with his got-tam theory…”) that we can reflect on our attributes and projects at any moment, in practice (that’s the science part!) most of us don’t. The collective tradition of doing so around New Year’s provides a periodic reminder for us to reflect on our past year and the things we’d like to change or accomplish in the upcoming year. A healthy practice to my mind…

I Know I’m not Perfect But How Do I Pick My Resolutions? Use These THREE Weird Tricks!!!!!
For the most part, I think most of us, upon even the most cursory reflection, are aware of where we need “work”. It is mostly a matter of committing to the change you want to see. That said, here are a couple of general ideas inspired by a few philosophers for how to pick some resolutions. The first involves self-directed resolutions and the second is other-directed resolutions. 

1. Aristotle: For Aristotle and most of the ancient Greek philosophers, virtues were not only a means to a good life, they were necessary components of a good life. That is to say, you can’t have a good life unless you develop your virtues. Quick aside, for the Greeks, a good life meant a “flourishing” life. So, if a flourishing life is something that grabs your fancy, think about a virtue or two that you could further develop. Here’s a list of the classic virtues: courage, temperance, liberality (generosity), magnanimity, proper ambition, patience/good temper, truthfulness, friendliness, and modesty.

2. Sartre/De Beauvoir: Sartre says we construct meaning in life through our projects. So, what’s to prevent me from creating meaning through morally abhorrent projects? Nothing. You can derive meaning from evil projects, but this wouldn’t be an ethical life. The ethical constraint on life projects for Sartre and De Beauvoir is that they must be in the service of freedom. To understand what this means in practical terms we need to take a quick step back and ask why freedom is important in the first place. 

Without going too deeply into it, freedom is morally important because it is necessary for self-actualization. And self-actualization is necessary for a shot at a life worth living. If your own opportunities and resources that are helpful for self-actualization are morally important than so are those of others (unless you think there’s something metaphysically special about you). This means that your life project ought to involve in part helping those with fewer opportunities and resources for self-actualization than you. People who live in poverty or don’t have access to a good education or healthcare, etc have on average greater barriers to self-actualization. An ethical life is one that includes both working toward undermining those barriers and helping the individuals affected by the barriers. 

In terms of a NY resolution, Sartre and De Beauvoir would say you ought to resolve to include in your core life activities efforts towards helping others gain access to the resources that facilitate self-actualization. In short, find a social cause to include in your life project. Resolve to serve others.

3. Suzan Wolf: We all want a life that is worth living but what does that include? Whatever it is, it requires activities that are meaningful and fulfilling. We might think that if an activity is meaningful it’s also fulfilling and vice versa. Suzan Wolf argues that meaningfulness and fulfillment can come apart. 

Let me illustrate. You can have a career that is very meaningful yet not personally fulfilling. Perhaps your parents groomed you to be a doctor or something. You were too young to know how you’d feel about actually being a doctor so now that you are one, you do it. It’s meaningful work. You save lives. You cure the sick (contrary to what the idiots at Alt Mama or TinFoilRUs say). Yet, strangely, you don’t feel fulfilled. The idea is that despite the fact that an activity or career is meaningful, not everyone will find it fulfilling because of differences in our individual constitutions. 

Conversely, you can find an activity fulfilling yet it is not meaningful. I love to watch UFC. I find it really fulfilling. I feel great after watching people knock each other unconscious.  Is this a meaningful way to spend my time? Probably not.  

So here’s an idea for a resolution. Try to align your life projects in terms of meaningfulness and fulfillment. If your career or some central aspect of your life is meaningful but unfulfilling, find a way to make it fulfilling. If you can’t, think about finding a new fulfilling activity that is also meaningful. Conversely, if your job or some aspect of your life is fulfilling but isn’t meaningful, see if you can make it meaningful. Sometimes this won’t be possible and so you might consider changing to an activity in which the two attributes align. 

What I’ve suggested is no easy task, it means fundamentally rearranging important aspects of our lives. But if we seek a life worth living, it’s hard to see how such a life is possible without consistently striving to fill our lives with activities that are both meaningful and fulfilling. This requires making room for them by letting go of those activities where both qualities don’t overlap. It won’t happen over night. It’s a process and an approach to living that requires careful reflection on the various ways we fill our days. 

And New Year’s is as good a time as any to start….

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