Sunday, January 3, 2021

To do or not to do: Reflection on New Year's Resolutions

It was the New Year of 1993. I was a freshman in the Zoology department of Ravenshaw College. Our senior students had arranged a party to welcome us, freshmen. I remember some of my classmates being a little anxious before the party because ragging was common at such events. I don't think anyone was expecting things to turn too nasty at the party because the event was happening on the department premises where our professors would be around. Still, I think there was some apprehension in the air because most people don't enjoy being put in the spotlight and laughed at for social gaffes.

In any case, the reason I am recollecting this New Year party from 28 years ago is that it was a significant turning point in my life. The party was my first ever party away from home and parents, but more importantly, I aced the party. I don't remember what my mental state was before the party--I might have been a little anxious as well--but I do remember enjoying the party thoroughly and coming out of it more confident and happy than I was before.

The thing is that our seniors had a two-prong method of ridiculing us. One was to ask questions which we would likely fail to answer, and second, to give us tasks that we would either be too shy to attempt or fumble if we did try them. As luck would have it, they asked me to sing, which because of my music background, I could easily impress them with. Then they asked me a couple of riddles, which again, as luck would have it, I was familiar with, so I could give them the correct answers. Then, they asked me to pick a girl in the room and propose to her. By this time, the small wins had already given me enough confidence to deal with the challenge. I picked a girl whom I knew well enough to trust that she would take this in the playful spirit and wouldn't be upset for putting her in the spot. So, the proposal scene turned out great as well, leading to a good amount of applause.

Finally, one of the seniors asked me about my New Year resolutions. I was a person committed to personal development even then, so I indeed had made some New Year resolutions, but I didn't want to share them publicly. Thankfully, there was enough adrenaline in my system to think on my feet, and I replied, "I just made one resolution. [Pause] That is to NOT make any New Year resolutions... because most New Year resolutions fail anyway. [Another pause, and a wink] You never know, I may have already failed on mine too." The delivery of those lines with those appropriate pauses had enough of a dramatic effect to crack everyone up. I was now a cool guy in the department.

But then as luck would have it, a certain turn of unfortunate events--which would be another story for another time--led me to leave Ravenshaw College after a month or so, and I did not get much opportunity to leverage those positive impressions I had created at that New Year's day party.

The purpose of sharing the above story was not to boast about some accomplishments from 28 years ago (Okay, maybe a little 😂). But, the primary reason I shared the story is that it provides context to certain life lessons that I have gained pertaining to New Year resolutions. In this post, I will focus on Lesson 1 (More in later posts).

Lesson 1: New Year's resolutions are unrealistically optimistic, but still, they have their uses.

We see two kinds of thoughts shared about New Year resolutions. One is that they are stupid and a complete waste. People subscribing to this viewpoint will make fun of you when they hear about you making New Year resolutions. There is sufficient validity to this viewpoint because there are numerous studies demonstrating the extremely high failure rate of New Year resolutions. For example, one of the studies found that people, on average, make the same New Year resolution 10 times. That means they have failed at sticking to their resolution 10 times!

The second view is that the New Year and the corresponding resolutions are a great opportunity to reconfigure ourselves into a better and improved version of ourselves. There is certainly less empirical support for this point of view, but it is true that many people, although they are a small minority, do succeed in changing their lives for the better with New Year's resolutions.

I have fluctuated between these two extreme points of view in the past, but over the years, I have come to realize the truth lies somewhere in between. It is easy to make fun of people making New Year's resolutions. "How can people be so stupid to not realize that they will most likely fail, if not in a few days, then in a few weeks or months?" The failure rate here is certainly high, but it is high in many other endeavors as well, entrepreneurship, for instance. Yet, we don't make fun of failed entrepreneurs. We may even admire their courage for having tried their hands at entrepreneurial ventures. My point is that there is no value in making fun of somebody only because of the high failure rate. In fact, such derision may often be a cognitive defensive mechanism for people to play it safe and not try things themselves.

Personally, I have benefited immensely from New Year resolutions, even though I too have failed to stick to them for long periods of time. Let's say, my New Year resolution was to exercise 5 times per week and let's say I could sustain this resolution only for a month. That would count as a failure in a research study, but that is still one full month of healthy physical activities that I would not have engaged in had I not made the resolution because of harboring pessimistic views about New Year's resolutions.

Yes, I have failed in my resolutions and repeatedly so, but over the years, I have gotten better at keeping them for longer periods of time. Most importantly, I have even succeeded in creating an "improved" version of myself, despite these failures. Going back to the example of fitness, despite my repeated failures, I have evolved as a fitter individual than many of my friends and acquaintances who did not set such resolutions for fear of failing at them.

That is why I would say that it is wise to set resolutions than to not. But being happy by comparing oneself with those who did not attempt to change themselves is setting a pretty low bar. In my next post, I will start sharing tips on what can be done to reduce the failure rate of New Year's resolutions such that one can move faster on the path of self-improvement and achieve substantial goals in life.

... To be Continued.

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