Byline: Oliver Burkeman
Every year we promise to change our behavior, and every year we screw it up. Oliver Burkeman explains why--and points to a surer path to happiness.
or the self-help industry, the most wonderful time of the year arrives not at Christmas but in the weeks immediately afterward--that segment of the calendar known to publishers and motivational speakers worldwide as "New Year, New You." It's the season of books with titles like Change Your Life in 7 Days and Starting Today: A Journal of Intention and Change, to quote two forthcoming titles, and of big-ticket events featuring Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra. The symbolic power of the date--1/1--is considerable: judging by past research, more than a third of Americans, including a majority of those under 45, will make New Year's resolutions this year. Quitting smoking and losing weight, the same research suggests, will loom largest in their plans.
Spoiler alert: most of them will fail.
It's a curious truth about the happiness industry that, unlike most other industries, it doesn't have much to gain from selling a product that actually works. If you bought, say, a smartphone that performed much worse than advertised, you might avoid that manufacturer in the future. But the doctrine of positive thinking that underpins modern self-help rests on circular logic: when a given technique fails, the implication goes, it's because you weren't thinking positively enough--and so you need positive thinking even more. In reality, psychological research increasingly suggests that repeating "affirmations" makes people with low self-esteem feel worse; that visualizing your ambitions can make you less motivated to achieve them; that goal setting can backfire; and that emotions can't be controlled through sheer force of will. But the temptation to just try even harder can be hard to resist. "The key to success," argues the best-selling motivational writer Brian Tracy, "is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear."
Messages like Tracy's don't keep on selling despite the fact that they don't work, but rather because they don't work: they deliver a short-lived mood boost, and when that fades, the most obvious way to revive it is to go back for more.
If this unhelpful approach reaches a peak at the New Year, perhaps it's because the lure of the "complete fresh start" is so strong. Not many of us would take seriously the notion of faking our own death--committing "pseudocide," to use the term coined by Doug Richmond in his 1997 manual on creating a new identity, How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. But the New Year vision of total life transformation is really just a modified version of this, and no less unrealistic. ("Fresh-startism"--the promise of an utterly new era, free from the errors of the past--infects our politics, too: Mitt Romney's campaign rhetoric, for example, consisted of little else.) Here's the irrepressible if irritating Brian Tracy again: "It doesn't matter where you're coming from. All that matters is where you're going." Forget the past. The new you starts now.
The problem is that successful change rarely works that way. To be sure, it makes intuitive sense to imagine that radical, across-the-board changes would be the most effective ones, because each change would support the others. Develop the habit of going daily to the gym, for instance, and you'd assume you'd naturally also become the kind of health-minded person who avoids junk food. But a large (albeit contested) body of evidence suggests that willpower is a unitary and depletable resource: the more of it you use making one change, the less you'll have left over to make others. The discipline you exert on building the exercise habit, initially at least, leaves you more susceptible to burgers rather than less.
Worse, you're almost certainly a poor judge of which resolutions you should select in order to maximize your happiness. …