Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Thoughts on the New Year and resolutions (Part 1)

I'm not immune to the New Year's resolution craze. The beginning of a new year offers a powerful incentive to look back, reassess, and set goals for improvement. I think most people want to improve something about their lives. Few of us have reached a state of total satisfaction and happiness. Striving for something better is a healthy and natural human trait.

I can't tell you how often my reflections about goals and life and motivations have gone back to something I learned in a beginning psychology class-- Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

According to Maslow, the higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are satisfied. Once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level will no longer be prioritized. If a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will temporarily re-prioritize those needs by focusing attention on the unfulfilled needs, but will not permanently regress to the lower level. (from Wikipedia)

People who are struggling with meeting the more basic needs often look at the new year with hope: "Maybe this year I'll find a better job so I can afford to get a car that works, or move my family to a safer neighborhood." "Maybe I won't hurt so much this year." "Maybe we'll get enough rain for a decent corn crop." "Maybe the war will end and life can get back to normal." I feel extremely fortunate that my basic needs are met, when there are so many people in the world who are lacking so much.

Most New Year's resolutions are goals that fit into the esteem or self-actualization category: "I'm going to write every day in my blog." "I'm going to get organized." "I'm going to train for my first triathlon." Or maybe in the love/belonging category: "I'm going to spend more quality time with my spouse (or family.)"

However, what about the most common resolutions: lose weight, quit smoking, get more physically fit. Aren't those related to health? Yes, and self-esteem, and maybe even love (attracting a partner.) Human nature and psychology are complex and Maslow's model doesn't tell the whole story, but is still a useful tool for understanding.

Behind many resolutions is a yearning to break free of addictions. The following excerpt is adapted from Power, Freedom, and Grace, by Deepak Chopra, as presented on the Green Living website:
Addiction is the No. 1 disease of civilization, and it's directly and indirectly related to all other diseases. Besides physical addictions, such as the addiction to food, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, there are psychological addictions, such as the addiction to work, to sex, to television, to shopping, to appearing young, to control, to suffering, to anxiety, to melodrama, to perfection.

Why are we addicted to all these things? We are addicted because we are not living from source; we have [lost] our connection to our soul. The use of food, alcohol, or drugs is essentially a material response to a need that is not really physical at its foundation.
I emphasized that last sentence, because it resonated with me. Of course, this is not the first time I've read or heard this. Years of therapy have taught me that falling into self-destructive behavior is usually the result of some other problem. How often do we eat when we are tired or depressed, not because we are really hungry. Or numb ourselves with books and television shows because we don't want to face what's really bothering us. Understanding this is the first step to breaking the habits we do not want, but it's not enough.

The Loose Cannon Librarian posted recently about her "constant project" to reduce the inefficiency of processes in her library. Her introduction is what caught my eye:
I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I’m all for the holiday, for a little mid-winter joy for the turning of our rather arbitrary calendar system. But another revolution around the sun doesn’t provide enough impetus for me to declare a personal revolution. Most resolutions are hour-by-hour affairs, not watch-the-ball-drop-and-it’s-a-new-me overnight sensations. This may be the year I stop biting my nails, loose twenty pounds and send holiday cards, but it won’t be because this is the year I *really* wanted to- it will be because this is the year the incremental work built up to a new habit. We mostly become better people, learn more, improve our skills, break bad habits, build good practices in a creeping, inefficient way. Tempting though it is, the quick fix raises our eyebrows and suspicion. We change ourselves by creating new connections, internally and externally.
She was referring back to Penelope Trunk (The Brazen Careerist) on How to make a New Year's resolution that you'll keep:
Most resolutions are goals to change our behavior: Stop smoking, stop eating crap, stop being late. This is not a small change. This is a change that requires a massive overhaul of our daily life - hour by hour.
We can each meet one or two big goals a year. We can’t change a lot of bad behavior - the more resolutions we make the less likely we are to keep them, according to Roy Baumeister, psychologist at Florida State University. But we can change one. Pick the one that’ll mean the most to you. And, you will be pleasantly surprised to find out that changing one habit actually requires so many small changes in your day that you also end up being able to change other habits, because the patterns of your life change.
So after this long compilation of other people's ideas, what is my point? My point is that I really want to set some goals and make some changes in my life in 2008, but I want to do it thoughtfully. I don't want to list a bunch of resolutions that I'm not going to keep. I want to make a commitment to something and develop a plan to actually do it. More thoughts coming.


Guardienne of the Tomes said...

Very interesting post. Lifestyle changes are the hardest to make - new habits take years to form and constant attention and dedication (says the 20-year WW member. Ha!) It is interesting - and useful! - to keep Maslow in mind. I find many people bite off far more than they can chew by choosing what seem to be 'simple' resolutions, but are inadequate to address the deeper underlying problem. Good food for thought.

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