I read a Facebook post on New Years’ Day that said, “I’m opening a new gym called ‘New Years’ Resolutions.’ It will have workout equipment for two weeks, then turn into a bar.” The track record on New Years’ resolutions is abysmal. Within one week, 25% of resolutions are already off-track. Less than 10% of resolutions survive the year. I’m already feeling guilty and defeated just thinking about it. Why are we so bad at keeping to these annual good intentioned efforts at self-reform?
Psychologist David DeStano believes he has found a hopeful solution. He thinks the problem is focusing too much on will power. In a recent NY Times Op Ed, “The Only Way to Keep New Years’ Resolutions” DeStano writes:
In choosing to rely on rational analysis and willpower to stick to our goals, we’re disadvantaging ourselves. We’re using tools that aren’t only weak; they’re also potentially harmful. If using willpower to keep your nose to the grindstone feels like a struggle, that’s because it is. Your mind is fighting against itself. It’s trying to convince, cajole and, if that fails, suppress a desire for immediate pleasure.
What is a better solution to find the motivation for lasting change in our lives? DeStano’s research focuses on “social emotions” such as gratitude and compassion. When we cultivate these classic virtues, we are much more likely to be patient, purposeful and passionate.
This makes intuitive sense to me. I write better when I think about the people who may read or hear me speak. I have more courage and boldness when I am advocating for a person I care about, rather than an abstract principle. We are more likely press forward when we are on the receiving side of gratitude and compassion as well. Grit is simply not enough. Our goals find life and energy when they are connected to our hearts.
What really grabbed my attention were the hundreds of deep felt comments on the article. Hundreds of people shared how gratitude and compassion helped them through some of their biggest life challenges. A man from New Brunswick, ME said a gratitude journal, writing several things daily for which he was grateful, helped him get sober. “I found out that it is possible to be remarkably flawed, as I continue to be, without repeatedly escaping via self-destructive activity. For that I’m grateful.” 915 people clicked on the “like” button on his comment.
A woman from Paris wrote about the early death of her son, and in the midst of her bereavement she took heart in having more compassion for others who were suffering. The is a comfort in the solidarity of loss. Several people from all over the world reached out to her and expressed similar stories of loss and deeper compassion. 652 people “liked” her comment.
Other people wrote to say that they were still struggling to find gratitude and peace in the midst of their challenges, but they found the courage to keep trying from reading the article and other stories in the comments.
Whether our challenges are large challenges like health or financial problems, or smaller weekly goals of improvement, we can harness the power of our deeper positive emotions. Simply put, DeStano persuades us to stop treating our goals like a stone we must roll up the hill through our perserveareance and grit. Instead, cultivate gratitude and compassion and remember why you want to accomplish something in the first place. Let these social emotions pull your forward. You can read the full article at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/29/opinion/sunday/the-only-way-to-keep-your-resolutions.html and also look for his new book out this January, “Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.”