Give it Up: New Year’s Resolutions Are Pointless

IT’S THE FIRST WEEK OF JANUARY, AND EVERYBODY’S GOT THEIR NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION LINED UP: Quitting smoking, quitting drinking, quitting crack, losing the cellulite, saving some cash, spending more time with grandma, getting grandma off the crack. New Year’s resolutions are a time-honored tradition, dating all the way back to the Babylonians, probably.

When we make New Year’s resolutions we get excited about actually achieving something within that year. We start to think we can accomplish stuff, if we just try. But stop feeling so smug already. New Year’s resolutions are worthless, and you shouldn’t bother making any. Here are 4 reasons why.

A whopping 78 percent of all New Year’s resolutions fizzle before they’re fulfilled, most before January even hits 31. Ouch. Seventy-eight percent is a lot of hope flushed down the crapper.  That’s a 20 lb weight loss story that never gets written. That’s a half-pack-a-day habit that hangs on. That’s a sex life wholly dependent on PornHub and KY. All that’s left is guilt, shame, regret, and a general sense of depression. Because, according to psychologists, those are our go-to emotions when the inevitable happens. We focus on our failures and subsequently feel even worse about our lives than we did before we made a pact to better them. (Here’s an article about this on The Guardian.)

Psychologists call New Year’s resolutions a form of “cultural procrastination”—a quick-fix to reinventing ourselves. The whole reason behind a New Year’s resolution involves the naïve assumption that achieving that resolution will jump-start life-affirming and self-perpetuating happiness. For instance: Why lose weight? Because Mr. Right will come a runnin’ just as soon as I can fit into smaller jeans. Why watch less TV? Because then I’ll start to read more, and if I read more, I’ll be living a more enlightened life.

Attaching unreasonable ends to our resolutions is what psychologists refer to as “false-hope syndrome.”  Our goals fail because they’re unrealistic. They’re unrealistic because they usually reflect a distorted internal view of ourselves. (Here’s an article about this in Psychology Today.)

We think undoing ourselves of  just one bad habit will translate into a total lifestyle makeover, forgetting that our behavior is made up of various routines oftentimes determined by things outside of our control. Sure, you can lose ten pounds, or quit smoking, but that asshole boss of yours will still be there even after the extra poundage has vanished. So basically, your life will still suck.

When was the last time anybody under the age of 30 watched an hour of television, or worked a day in the office, or stood in line at the DMV without checking Facebook, or browsing the Internet, or playing Angry Birds, or checking Facebook again?

It’s too easy to get sidetracked from something as rote and boring as an obligatory proclamation of self-discipline and betterment that’s supposed to be sustained through the course of at least a few months. But there’s good news. Turns out, we have good reason to not feel shitty if and when we do get sidetracked, because…

We’re constantly told is that anything is possible through sheer willpower, and because of that we assume that if and when our willpower fails, it must be because we lack self-discipline or have some kind of character flaw that needs rectifying. What we don’t realize—but what scientists already know— is that willpower is more like an actual tangible muscle than a philosophical concept. And it can wear out if we use it too much.

The part of the brain responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. Prefrontal cortexes haven’t really evolved that much since the days of our shit-in-my-hand ancestors because it’s always had other things to worry about besides channeling willpower into a year-long odyssey, like handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems that make up our day-to-day existence.

Asking our prefrontal cortexes to follow through on some New Year’s resolution is an easy way to overtax it. A tired brain is a weak brain, and a weak brain wants a goddamn cigarette.

Well, we won’t go that far. Where would we be if nobody ever tried to accomplish anything? It’s nice to have goals. But call a goal a New Year’s resolution, and you’re hexing from the get-go. It’s probably best we treat New Year’s like we do most holidays—ignore most of the symbolism, disregard the traditional obligations, and just use it as an excuse to get drunk.


Related on The Smoking Jacket:
New Year’s Resolutions for 2012
An Impressive Display of Failure