New Year’s Resolutions: What are they designed to do, if not make you feel like a total failure at self-improvement as soon as the gloomy mid-winter settles in?
It’s a mug’s game. According to a 2007 survey by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, 88 percent of people did a face plant into failure with their New Year’s resolutions. One of the reasons for this, Wiseman speculates, is that people make too many resolutions, and they rely on willpower to succeed.
Neuroscientists have been poking around the brain and studying this topic in recent years, and here’s what they’ve found: Willpower weakens in direct relation to how many tasks you pile on your brain. A famous study at the University of Iowa demonstrated this a few years back. A group of students was asked to memorize a two-digit number and then walk down a hall to write down the number in another room. On the way, they were offered a snack, and could choose either chocolate cake or fruit salad. Meanwhile, a second group of students was asked to memorize a seven-digit number and walk down the same hall.
The students who had less ‘cognitive load”only two numbers to keep in mind’had enough mental space left to reason that fruit is a healthier choice than cake, and chose the fruit snack. The students who were preoccupied with remembering seven numbers were so mentally distracted that they couldn’t summon the willpower to resist the cake.
The takeaway is that willpower is pretty easy to blow out of the water. It has nothing to do with how virtuous you are, or how strong your character is. It has everything to do with how much the world is overloading your brain.
So here’s the thing: What if we changed the tactics of the game? Instead of us ordinary folk all feeling guilty about not being perfect, maybe we could assign some New Year’s resolutions to those who make it impossible to be so perfect?
My dental hygienist, for instance, could resolve to stop making me feel like Satan’s apprentice for not flossing my teeth every day. I get it: Flossing is important for optimal dental health. It also hurts, and it’s finicky, and my whole workday already tends to be filled with minor pain and petty detail. So when I get home, I want a break from being a good girl.
Then my doctor could perhaps resolve to make her patients wait less than an average of one hour for a typical medical appointment. I understand that there is a shortage of family physicians in Canada. But I’m a professional, too, and I don’t regularly blow my clients off for 60 minutes without’at the very least’an embarrassed apology. Does she understand how this is making me less inclined to see her unless my situation ‘is dire?
Those running the cosmetics sections of department stores should resolve to post the price of their products in the display cases, so we aren’t left to guess whether we can afford that exciting new face cream or mascara.
Here’s what restaurants can do: They can resolve to put less food on our plates when we order an entrée. I don’t need 7,000 fries with my tuna melt. (Nor quite so much cheese.) But because it makes me feel guilty that they’re going to slide leftovers into the garbage at the back of the establishment, and not even feed them to stray dogs, I eat more than I want just to clear my plate. Not a good way to lose 20 pounds.
Speaking of poundage, I wouldn’t mind if psychiatrists would resolve to engage in more talk therapy with patients before tossing them onto antidepressants that will inflate them to dinghy size, as was my experience. (Yes, I know the meds work for many people. But sometimes we actually want to discuss the stuff that life’s dragging us through. A divorce, for example, is not a chemical imbalance in your brain.)
Now that we’re on the subject of distress, for 2012 I would like TV news media to resolve to report good stories about caring people, not end-of-the-world stories filled with blood, mayhem and plummeting stock markets. How the heck are we going to get out of all these messes we’re in, if we don’t know about the people who are trying?
Scientists, meanwhile, must resolve to cease and desist from announcing that everything causes cancer. Just when we finally get it that sun exposure causes cancer and requires sunscreen, we start hearing claims that ingredients in sunscreen supposedly cause cancer’yet we also know we risk disease if we don’t get enough vitamin D’which, of course, you get mainly from the sun. Aargh! If everything causes cancer, then there’s nothing I can do. And that’s not really the best messaging by scientists, is it? Why don’t they just sit on their study results until they know for sure?
Finally, would all companies please resolve to stop producing newer versions of perfectly good electronic devices? I do not want to be forced to buy a new computer or cellphone just because parts and accessories are continually being ‘discontinued.’ It is wasteful, it is expensive, and it serves nobody’s interests except gadget freaks’.
Also, it overloads my brain, which pretty much takes us back to the point of the University of Iowa research. Too many facts and choices make it impossible for people to summon willpower, which in turn makes it very difficult for us to change our ways. ‘So your best bet is to stick to a single resolution. Maybe even break it down into bits. Let’s say my resolution is to stop using my car as a giant purse. But I’ll give myself until Canada Day to stop leaving makeup in the cup holder. Wish me luck on that one. And have a happy 2012 yourself.