Stop Rehashing Resolutions, Make Them Stick by Learning to Pay Attention
Your New Year’s resolutions don’t need to be trade-offs. Learn to pay attention and succeed where self-restraint fails.
Before you dive into that new exercise regime or throw out all of that booze or sugary food, step back and take another look at what lead to this. Why set these goals at all? Why resolve to change these habits? It’s easy to run with a simple, superficial understanding of what you’re ‘meant to do’ and it’s even easier to pursue what you feel instinctively will make you happier or better off.
Those two things are woven together — our culture and societal norms play a big part in determining our understanding of what’s acceptable, desirable, admirable, and so on. And modern western culture has a way of trapping us in this impossible position of wanting and depending on a bunch of stuff that undermines our wellbeing, whilst drip-feeding us information about all the damage that it’s doing. And so come January each year, we set new targets and pick out those bad habits for correction. And by the summer (or by February) we’re back in the same old routine, drinking too much, gorging on sugar, skipping workouts, and trying to forget we ever made those dumb resolutions.
They aren’t dumb resolutions, but the paradigm that creates them is.
We decide to go to the gym because we’re out of shape, we don’t look like we used to, the health problems are kicking in. We go because some people are super fit and healthy and the social comparison is weighing on us. We go because we’re meant to, even though we don’t want to. The resolution is made from this place of conflict, that in-between ground where we have to run against what we ‘know’ makes us happy, to make ourselves well. The same goes for the diet or the booze — we’re certain they’re essential ingredients of happiness, we just need to cut back. They are trade-offs and the strategy for making them work is brute force and self-restraint.
Unfortunately, the forces that have created this dynamic are much stronger than our will. We all have strong instincts about what makes us truly happy, what we really enjoy, and what we don’t. But our intuitions are constantly being manipulated by marketing teams trying to sell us crap that we don’t need. They do it by appealing to the worst parts of our nature — finding the ‘bliss point’ to addict us to harmful foods, pushing addictive compounds, manipulating the cultural understanding of what’s cool, sophisticated, fashionable, etc. And once out in the world those ideas spin ever faster with their own momentum. The self-restraint method has a lot to contend with.
There is another way but it depends on acknowledging a difficult truth — we don’t know what makes us truly happy. The parts of our brains responsible for wanting and liking are separate and distinct. That means that we don’t necessarily want things because we like them. That might sound insane but an experiment by psychologist and neuroscientist Kent Berridge sheds some light. The experiment found that a rat with an activated dopamine system couldn’t resist repeatedly returning to a metal rod in its cage, despite the unpleasant electric shock it received each time. Under normal circumstances, the rat would learn quickly to stay away but when the ‘wanting’ system was activated, it kept going back for more. The rat did not like the electric shock, but it wanted it. We see the same in addiction behavior — the addict doesn’t necessarily have a great time every time they hit their drug of choice, eventually, it becomes a desire that has to be satisfied, regardless of the value of the experience itself.
“The power of attention is much greater than the force of self-restraint” Charles Eisenstein
When we pay close attention to the experiences we believe we like, we can very often discover that they don’t deliver good returns. Paying attention means dropping the assumptions about how much we enjoy them and really focussing on the experience itself. Is that after-work booze actually making you feel better? Does fast food give you a feeling of satisfaction? If you abstain from telling others about how wasted you got, does it feel as worthwhile as usual? Is the enjoyment and satisfaction strongest in the very first moments after quenching the thirst? Do the returns diminish quickly? And there’s the long-term impact too — do you feel happier on the whole for those habits? Does the weekend blowout improve your outlook on life during the week or do you find yourself down on life and burning time until the next party?
The miserable in-between isn’t proof of the value of the habit, it’s precisely the opposite. The most valuable, transformative lifestyle practices don’t only improve your wellbeing whilst you do them, they create lasting improvements and linger into the in-between. There are growing mountains of research to back this up but proposition and theory can only carry us so far. To really connect with this truth, we have to feel it, and to do that, we need to pay attention.
When we pay attention without bias and move beyond our ingrained intuitions about what works, we open ourselves honestly to other options. So don’t go to the gym or start running begrudgingly, with the conviction that you don’t enjoy this stuff. Consider that you could find the same joy that so many others do once you adjust and find your niche. Pay close attention to the experience, the feeling you get afterward, and your mood two days later. Feel into the true experience of that new diet — do you feel less happy without those snacks or booze? Chances are you’ll feel just fine, probably better.
Making positive changes won’t be nearly as hard when you move beyond the trade-off mentality, turn off the autopilot, and pay close attention. So this year, rediscover your habits and revisit those resolutions with an open mind.