Making an annual list of New Year's resolutions is a venerable tradition. By some accounts, it dates back to the ancient Romans, who customarily made a show of promising the god Janus that they would behave better over the next 12 months than they had in the past 12 [source: Huchison]. But while Janus was the patron deity of new beginnings, he also provided a convenient excuse. If a citizen of Rome didn't actually follow through with his various self-improvement vows, he could always shrug it off by explaining that it was Janus' will [source: Chicago Institute]. Then, presumably, he could just go on gorging himself at banquets or betting excessively on gladiator fights.
Sounds familiar? A couple of millennia later, we're pretty much doing the same thing that the Romans did. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that six months into the year, fewer than half -- 46 percent -- of resolvers were still keeping to their pledge. Granted, that's a better track record at self-improvement than people who make no resolutions at all (only 4 percent of those achieved success).
But with all the practice we get at making resolutions year after year, why aren't we doing better at keeping them? Psychologists and other experts who've studied resolution-making say we tend to make them too general rather than specific; we resolve to "exercise more" as opposed to "walk a half hour five times a week" [sources: Eisenstadt, Sample].
We suspect that another reason New Year's goals are easy to break is that while losing weight or quitting smoking (two of the top resolutions) are worthy endeavors, they sound rather boring and involve a lot of self-denial. This year, why not make some positive and creative New Year's resolutions? Here are 10 that you might actually be able to keep.
Trust Your Instincts
In some ways, this might be the easiest resolution to follow. That's because it doesn't require you to change, so much as go back to doing what you were naturally inclined to do, before you started doubting your feelings and over-thinking things, or putting too much stock in others' opinions at the expense your own.
Going with your gut might seem crude and primitive, but actually, there's scientific evidence that it can lead to better decisions. In a 1997 study published in the journal Science, researchers found that card players often made the right decision based on a "hunch" well before they could even articulate what strategy they were following [sources: Bechara, et al., and Cassleman].
What we think of as an "instinct" actually is a phenomenon called instrumental conditioning, in which a region of our brain called the ventral striatum instantaneously processes subtle contextual cues from a situation, interprets them, and suggests a course of action before we've even had a chance to consciously analyze what's happening [source: Pessiglione, et al]. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the 2007 bestseller "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," describes this ability as "thin slicing" -- that is, the knack for coming to an accurate conclusion based on a quick, tiny sample of information. In other words, having lots of information or listing all the pros and cons doesn't always make for a better decision [source: Gladwell].
One easy way to give more weight to your instincts: When you have a gut feeling about something, write it down or record it in your smartphone. Also note your mood at the time ("Do I not want this new job because I am afraid I can't do it?"). Then test your feelings out on family or friends to get their reaction [source: Everett].
Here's a resolution that you may have made in previous years, but somehow just didn't get around to accomplishing. OK, that's a joke. But procrastination -- that is, the tendency to habitually and consistently delay tasks -- is a problem that plagues about 20 percent of the population worldwide, according to DePaul University psychology professor Joseph R. Ferrari, who spent years studying the phenomenon and is the author of a 2010 self-help tome, "Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done."
He advises truly hard-core procrastinators to seek out cognitive behavioral therapists. But for those of us who are aren't quite that dysfunctional, Ferrari suggests some simple research-tested steps to counteracting our tendency to dawdle.
- Resolve to keep a to-do list, with realistic deadlines for each item. Identify your most urgent priorities, and tackle those items first.
- Next, deliberately pick the most unpleasant items on the list and get them completed, because those are the ones that you're most likely to put off.
- Aggressively manage technological distractions. Check your e-mail only once an hour, and only follow up or answer messages when absolutely necessary.
- Stick to completing the tasks on your list before tackling new assignments.
- Figure out who your most productive colleagues are, and try to team up with them, so you can model their techniques for making the most of their time [source: Adams].
Learn to Take Risks
Whether you're perusing the listings in an online dating service or investing in the stock market, you probably already realize that in order to get the reward that you want, you're going to have to take a risk. And unless you're part of the minority that psychologists call "high sensation seekers" -- that is, unusually adventurous people whose nervous systems are wired biochemically to crave the stimulation of danger -- you probably have a powerful innate urge to play it safe and avoid uncertainty [source: Munsey]. A 2012 study by a Case Western Reserve University psychologist found that subjects who played a computerized slot-machine game experienced powerful emotions from surprise outcomes, which deterred them from risk-taking behavior -- even if the surprise resulted in their winning money [source: ScienceDaily].
But learning to take risks doesn't mean being foolhardy or reckless, either. Instead, you can learn to pick and choose which risks are worth accepting to achieve your goals in life. Renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who frequently makes life-and-death evaluations of risk in his work, suggests applying a simple process to any risk: Instead of evaluating the likelihood of success, evaluate your willingness to accept the various possible outcomes. What's the best thing that could happen if you take a particular risk? What's the worst outcome? Once you've weighed those two scenarios, it's time to look at the converse. What's the best thing that could happen if you don't take the risk, and what's the worst possible result? If you see that the positives exceed the negatives and the benefits of action outweigh inaction, then it's time to take the plunge [source: Carson].
One of the toughest parts of being human is experiencing the pain of being hurt by someone else, whether it's a deliberate act of cruelty or unintentional thoughtless behavior. But the resentment we feel against someone who's harmed us can injure us even more.
In a 2003 article, German psychiatrist Michael Linden identified a mental malady, post-traumatic embitterment disorder or PTED, in which memories of the event and continuing anger over the injustice can lead to depression, sleep disturbances, physical pain and loss of appetite, to the point where a person can become paralyzed by such feelings [source: Linden, Joshi]. But researchers have found that it can be difficult for people to forgive, in part because victims of wrongdoing tend to remember the event much differently than the perceived transgressor, over time embellishing negative details and leaving out mitigating factors that might help them to get over the hurt [source: American Psychological Association].
Psychologist Ned Hallowell advises following a four-part process.
- Acknowledge your pain. Admit to yourself that you've been hurt.
- Ask yourself, what do you want this pain to turn into? It's not about how your transgressor feels, but about how you want to feel. Forgiveness is a service to yourself.
- Work through your anger. It's okay to imagine vengeance, as long as you don't act on those urges. But it's better to think of how much happier and better off you'll be once you are free of these feelings.
- Renounce your rage and resentment. Recognize that they may never go away completely -- but resolve that if and when you do feel them again, you'll simply repeat this process and regain your feeling of peace [source: Oprah].
If you've never worked as a waiter or waitress in a restaurant, you may think leaving a tip is an optional gesture, something that you only do when a server delivers your main course at precisely the moment that your hunger pangs are reaching their apex, or else jumps in and successfully performs the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge a life-threatening hunk of prime rib from your throat. But if that's what you think, you're not seeing things from the perspective of the 2.26 million waiters and waitresses in the U.S., who are paid an average wage of just $18,330 annually [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].
For them, that 20 percent gratuity may make the difference in whether or not they'll be able to pay their rent or afford a pair of comfortable shoes to ease the discomfort of being on their feet all day. And servers work pretty darn hard to maximize their chances of getting that extra few percent that can lift them above penury. If you wonder why they introduce themselves by name, it's because research shows that they'll typically get a 23 percent tip if they do, as opposed to 15 percent if they remain anonymous. (Similarly, that odd gesture of squatting down to talk to a customer typically results in a 3 percent additional gratuity) [source: Lynn]. If you think, "The restaurant should just pay its staff more," also consider that if that were the case, chances are the restaurant food prices would be higher, too.
Remember also the other people who provide services to you, such as parking valets, coatroom attendants, bartenders and pizza delivery workers who are heavily dependent upon your generosity [source: CNN Money].
Learn One New Thing
Back in 1905, a 55-year-old Johns Hopkins University medical professor named William Osler gave a retirement speech, in which he opined that the "effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of 25 and 40 -- those 15 golden years." By contrast, Osler argued, those over the age of 40 didn't have anything new to offer, and he thought it would be best if people stopped working at age 60, since by then their brains were pretty much shot.
Osler's belief that brainpower, creativity and innovation had a limited shelf life sounds a bit daft today, but up until recently, scientists actually did believe that brain cells died off without being replaced and that after our youthful peak, our mental capabilities steadily declined with every passing year. Today, however, we know that many people don't experience a noticeable drop-off in brainpower as they age, and that some mental abilities that depend upon accumulated knowledge and experience actually tend to get better over time.
Research shows that regular mental workouts -- such as the sort that you get from taking a college class, reading a challenging book or studying a foreign language -- actually improve the function of parts of the brain associated with memory, learning and decision-making [source: Cohen] But again, the resolutions that stand the most chance of success are focused and modest. So this year, set a reasonable goal of acquiring some new knowledge. It's easier now than ever, now that educational consortiums such as Udacity and Coursera are offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), which actually allow you to participate in free classes taught by professors at elite universities like Columbia, Brown and Stanford [source: Blankenhorn]. Of course, a college in your hometown is also sure to offer a short night-time course on something of interest.
Live Longer, Watch Less TV
A 2011 Nielsen Co. study found that Americans are watching more TV than ever before -- an astonishing 158 hours a month on their TV sets, plus close to an additional nine hours on computers, tablets and smartphones. That came to 22 minutes more per month than in 2010. It's not just that there are more devices, but thanks to cable channels creating their own original shows, there's more content than ever to watch as well. Add online libraries of programs, and digital video recorders that allow us to time-shift programs, and we can pretty much watch TV whenever and wherever we want.
All that TV watching could kill you. We're not joking. A 2010 study published online by the American Heart Association, in which researchers followed 8,800 adults, revealed that people who watched four hours or more each day were 80 percent more likely to die from heart disease and 46 percent more likely to die from other causes, compared to those who watched less than two hours. And each additional hour spent in front of the TV increased a person's overall risk of death by 11 percent [source: Klein]. This was mainly due to all that sitting. Too much muscle inactivity disrupts your metabolism.
Think of it this way: If you cut back to two hours of viewing a day, that's still enough to enjoy 10 worthwhile programs each week, plus a sports event or two on the weekend. This year, admit that you've seen every rerun of "Law & Order" and "Jersey Shore," and start cutting back on your screen time in favor of healthier pursuits, such as exercising, playing games and talking to your family. And don't flip the TV on when there's nothing you really want to watch.
Try a New Adventure
Going on vacations is fun, and more than 40 percent of American adults fly on leisure trips each year, according to the U.S. Travel Association. A lot of those trips are to visit friends and family, or to go to theme parks and resorts. Those can be memorable and enjoyable experiences. But instead of going on the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland, gambling in Las Vegas, or playing hearts with cousin Ethel again, why not go somewhere different this year? If you've read books such as Paul Theroux's "The Old Patagonian Express" or Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love," you know that going someplace challenging and immersing yourself in a totally new, unfamiliar culture can be a transcendent, even life-altering experience.
For one, going to new places means learning how to interact with whoever you meet. "I'm not afraid to travel to the most remote places in the world, not if there are human beings there to meet," Gilbert wrote in "Eat, Pray, Love." "People asked me before I left for Italy, 'Do you have friends in Rome?' And I would just shake my head no, thinking to myself, 'But I will."
So this year, why not plan an adventure journey somewhere? One intriguing trend is volunteer vacations, where you spend a week in some exotic location, helping scientists save endangered sea turtles or helping out at a children's clinic. (Check out Volunteer Guide). If money is tight, look online for volunteer opportunities right at home that might offer the same kinds of activities. Or make it a point to attend a local festival celebrating a culture you're unfamiliar with.
Get to Know Your Neighbors
If you grew up hearing Mister Rogers singing "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," there's some distressing news in a 2010 Pew Research Center study, which reveals that most of us don't really know the people who live in our immediate vicinity very well. Fewer than half of Americans -- 43 percent -- said that they knew all or most of their neighbors, while 28 percent admitted they didn't know the names of any of them at all [source: Smith].
That disturbing data only provides further confirmation of what Harvard University public policy professor Robert D. Putnam described in a 2000 book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." Americans, Putnam wrote, had become so immersed in their work, TV and the Internet that they had become increasingly alienated from their neighbors. Putnam found the perfect metaphor in the recreational sport of bowling; even though more Americans were bowling than ever before, they increasingly were doing it by themselves, rather than participate in the old-fashioned Friday night bowling leagues to which their parents had belonged [source: Putnam].
The Young Foundation, a British-based community development group, found that people who had regular contact with their neighbors felt more secure and happy. It recommends some simple steps to bring back some sense of community. If you regularly pass someone on the street, smile and say hello, and introduce yourself. When someone new moves in, go to their door and welcome them. And if you see a neighbor doing yard work or moving a sofa, stop what you're doing and offer to help [source: Actionforhappiness.org]. And while you're at it, try to talk them into forming a bowling team.
Use Your Talents for a Good Cause
Volunteering -- whether it's in a local soup kitchen, or tutoring kids in an after-school program, or cleaning cages at the local animal shelter -- sure sounds like something that's good for the soul. And that's why it's a bit disheartening to discover that most of us don't do it. According to a 2012 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 26.8 percent of Americans had volunteered through or for a local organization at least once in the previous year [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].
While lack of community involvement is probably part of the cause, in fairness, one reason more people don't pitch in probably is that they don't have much free time. Americans typically put in an additional seven hours per week -- nearly a full day of work -- answering e-mail and calls from their employers and doing other uncompensated work in what is supposed to be their free time [source: Perez].
But even if a highly trained professional can squeeze in some time to help, he or she may feel performing menial labor isn't really making a difference. Fast Company, a business publication, and other organizations have come up with an ingenious solution that actually may help more. They've created an online clearinghouse, Catchafire.org, which matches people with charities who can use their skills, whether it's accounting, marketing or Web design [source: Chong].
And if you aren't comfortable with that much structure or time commitment, Huffington Post blogger Kari Henley suggests another answer: ad hoc, spur-of-the-moment activism. Deliver a dinner to a friend or neighbor in need. Offer to baby-sit a new mom's kids for an afternoon. Send an unexpected card of encouragement to someone [source: Henley]. Helping one person at a time is a good entry-level way to become a humanitarian, and you still get that warm and fuzzy payoff.
HowStuffWorks looks at the history of Columbus Day and the case for and against celebrating it.
Author's Note: 10 New Year's Resolutions You Might Actually Keep
It was interesting to research and write this assignment, because I'm one of those people who makes a long list of detailed resolutions each year and then promptly misplaces it. This year, though, I think that I'm going to pare down my list, and break each item into less arduous steps, and then come up with deadlines that I can mark in my Google calendar and ToDoist, a Web site that I use to organize my work assignments. I've tried that approach with my exercise goals, and it seems to work pretty well.
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