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Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Actually Make You Happier

We always focus on fixing a problem — but for our mental health’s sake, what we really ought to do is try to understand ourselves better

A new year brings another rush to make shiny resolutions about what we can and should achieve. But despite America’s vast diversity, it turns out our goals tend to be the same each January: We want to exercise more, lose weight, save money and learn a new skill. 

Just as predictable is the outcome. Success only comes to a small fraction of people who make bold resolutions on January 1st. Sometimes, life gets in the way of things — say, losing weight, which demands more time, energy and focus than many expect. Other times, the venture is so helpless you wonder if the goal was never in the cards to begin with. 

Ironically, failure can dent the one thing we probably should be making more resolutions about: our mental health. Unlike trying to land a huge pay raise or losing 40 pounds, balancing a mind is an unavoidable daily task without an endgame. The idea that you should consider mental rather than physical resolutions is far from new, and the internet is littered with advice on how to set such goals. We need it, too — especially millennials, who are experiencing a 31 percent spike in major depression rates and a bump in substance abuse, according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield Association report published last year. 

But I’m also struck by how bland much of the advice is. There’s nothing wrong with finding moments of peace, staying off social media, exercising creativity, practicing gratitude, appreciating your body more or booking a therapy appointment. It’s just that most of us know we oughta do as much. It doesn’t make it any less depressing when we seem to be failing a resolution either. Turns out that while mental health goals tend to be more flexible than physical ones, the same trappings apply. 

“People tend to try and focus on fixing something, but it’s really a process of understanding — yourself, your environment, all of it. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and maybe a goal like being off social media won’t help with the big challenges,” L.A.-area therapist Vida Nikzad tells me. “It’s good to have goals. But sometimes, a New Year’s resolution is like a little hit of dopamine that fades fast.” 

Why Resolutions Backfire

It’s also true that resolutions, whether physical or mental, backfire especially hard when they’re driven by a habit to compare yourself to others. Societal pressures make us question and compare everything from our paycheck (and therefore hustle) to our friendships to our bodies, day after day. Therein lies the paradox: How do we fix our heads when trying to fix things can discourage our pursuit of the goal and make us anxious about the whole mess?

“Maybe just try and learn about yourself, rather than focus on changing one thing if you’ll struggle with it,” Nikzad says. 

That reminds me of the reason why Buddhism traditionally does not buy into the idea of setting goals to accomplish in the future — it creates expectations and values as an end action, rather than the process to put in the right effort in the present. Anyone who’s felt a little empty after accomplishing something they thought would fulfill them knows the feeling. It’s the suffering of dissatisfaction. It’s the sensation of things not being fixed. A (deeply simplified) antidote, common in Buddhist thought, is to shed attachments to things like end goals and find ways to be at ease every day. That might require different mental health tasks depending on the day’s context. Or it might benefit from no input at all. 

‘Eight Hours of What We Will’

Writer Jenny Odell explored the perils of goal-setting in last year’s book How to Do Nothing, and in it, she mentions labor leader Samuel Gompers’ quote on why the eight-hour-workday movement mattered and what labor wanted. “What does labor want?” he responded, “It wants the earth and the fullness thereof.”

Odell mulls the meaning of this, as well as Gompers’ unwillingness to justify whether workers would do anything productive for society in their eight hours of free time each day. “And to me it seems significant that it’s not eight hours of, say, ‘leisure’ or ‘education,’ but ‘eight hours of what we will,’” she cites. “Although leisure or education might be involved, what seems most humane is the refusal to define that period.”

Similarly, I think that the best mental health resolutions for 2020 ought to involve some “refusal to define,” in a nod to understanding that it’s not merely about reaching out to people more or journaling every day, but really coming to grips with how to feel zen day after day. I don’t know what stresses Melinda Gates out, but I think her method of resolution works brilliantly for anyone who wants to work on their head game. She picks a “word of the year” that encapsulates some of the wishes she has, and treats it like a dynamic mantra that can speak to everything and something specific, all at once. 

It doesn’t exactly feel as ambitious as “lose two pant sizes” or “be less anxious.” But keeping things flexible and low-key, especially when tackling the pitfalls of mood and mentality, might just be the way to feel better in 2020.