New Year’s Resolutions: What Needs to Be Resolved?

Well it’s that time where our senses are accosted by countless lists of things we must do to become our better selves in 2016. They fall into two categories: 1) a guilt-fueled need to rectify all the failures of 2015, and 2) a guilt-fueled need to rectify all the failures of 2015 by concealing the guilt with “moderation”, “lifestyle” and “positive and lasting changes”.

Dale Matteson:
Dale Matteson:

When it comes to the presumed societal value of your shape, size and looks, there’s more that fits into that second category than the first. You are encouraged to put aside the guilt-induced extreme diet on January 1 and replace it instead with a ‘kindler, gentler’ restriction that gets labeled “intuitive eating.” You are assured that your health depends upon these modest and utterly doable small shifts and changes in your thoughts and actions; and that they will realize tremendous long-term benefits for you. Even the body positive resolutions out there are all about, well, the body. It’s all about outward appearances, whether it’s wrapped as “lifestyle” or “positivity” or is openly critical of your so-called lax and slothful ways.

The English language is idiosyncratic, but it does offer flexibility with multiple definitions for the same words. To resolve, in dictionary definition, is to find a solution, or to decide firmly on a course of action. We currently treat New Year’s resolutions as decisions to take action.

Losing weight and improving fitness top the New Year’s resolutions lists for those of us in developed nations every single year. It means that each year millions of us decide to take action to reinforce our social approval ratings all while thinking that we are firmly deciding on a course of action to better ourselves in some meaningful way.

Losing weight is temporary. As has already been repeatedly mentioned on this blog, 99.997% of all those losing weight will regain more than 77% of the initial weight lost, five years out. 1 Fitness has no bearing on morbidity or mortality outcomes (see here for references). It means that these actions serve no purpose beyond the fact that they get social approval. The fact that New Year’s resolutions have a 92% failure rate is irrelevant, because by enacting a public commitment to be a better person in these ways, you reinforce the fact that status should be accorded to the thin and healthy among us.

These people who dutifully take action each New Year on weight and fitness (and fail) are the good fatties and good sickies in our society. Good fatties and sickies are accorded some access to higher status because they agree that they should not be fat and/or sick. For an excellent discussion piece on the concept of good fatty, I encourage you to read Stacy Bias’ 12 Good Fatty Archetypes.

We’ve been making New Year’s resolutions for several thousand years, but in pre-industrial cultures, resolutions tended more towards rectifying past wrongs, seeking forgiveness, and having your behaviors adhere more closely to your moral code. It’s easy to dismiss our trendy resolutions today as self-absorbed and status-based, but humans haven’t changed much in 4000 years. You were just as likely to be focused on reinforcing your status by resolving to adhere more strictly to your moral code in 1716, as you are interested in displaying what a good person you are by taking out a gym membership in 2016.

In 1900, a maid working in London was bettering herself when she decided to save her pennies for elocution lessons so that she might pursue a job within a hat store. She improved her status in society by adhering to the social norm of the day that intellect, ability, and even morality were expressed through one’s accent. However she lived in a world of 1.65 billion people and I would posit that social mobility becomes much more difficult to realize with our global population of 7 billion today.

Social status is tenuous at best given that we now compete with billions of fellow humans for ever-shrinking resources on a finite planet. Social status is not entirely in your locus of control—it is both conjured by you and conferred on you by others. It used to be that social status was a social contract of sorts: you play by the rules and you will be rewarded with the accompanying status. The maid was able to get that job in the hat store once her accent reflected a higher social status. However, social status doesn’t have a tit for tat playbook anymore. You can do all the right things and not get that job in the hat store. So perhaps it’s simply time to step away from the “bettering yourself” status wheel and consider instead the flexibility of the word “resolve” in the English language.

What things in and around you are problems, beyond any dissatisfaction you might have regarding your own social status? Can you identify a solution to any of those problems? And if so, then perhaps you could choose to enact that solution as your New Year’s resolution. And if you cannot identify the solution, but can see the problem, then you can involve others, such as therapists, to help you uncover the solution over time.

Let’s not kid ourselves as we head into 2016: there are more predicaments than problems in our lives these days. Predicaments don’t have solutions. They are dilemmas where choices usually involve equally unfavorable options. An example of a predicament would be as follows:

Your partner has found a job in a city six hours away. Your family needs this additional income but it also needs your income from your job in the current city in which you and your school age children live.

All the scenarios for having both incomes will stress the family with commutes, separation and/or risks. You could quit your job in the hopes you will find another in the new city (risk) so as to keep the family intact but the children will need to move schools (separation). Your partner could move to the new city solo (separation) and come home alternate weekends (commute), leaving you to function as a single parent (stress) most of the time.

There is no right answer for a predicament. As predicaments mount in our lives, we are more and more prone to use the status wheel as a proxy for constant growth and improvement of self: you may not be able to solve the income earners having jobs in different cities, but you can join a gym and feel you are doing something of meaning or merit.

Sitting with the discomfort of predicaments is something we all have to get good at these days. Racing over to spin the status wheel in the hopes of hitting a jackpot won’t remove the discomfort of those predicaments. However, there are still basic problems in our lives that we can solve.

What problems might be resolved for you in 2016?

1. Furlow EA, Anderson JW. A systematic review of targeted outcomes associated with a medically supervised commercial weight-loss program. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009 Aug 31;109(8):1417-21.