My unscientific sampling says many people make New Year’s resolutions, but few follow through. Net result—unhappiness.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
You could, of course, just try harder, stiffen your resolve, etc. But you’ve been there, tried that.
You could also ditch the whole idea and just stop making resolutions. Avoid goal-failure by eliminating goal-setting. Effective, but at the cost of giving up on aspirations.
I heard another idea: replace the New Year’s Resolution List with a New Year’s Gratitude List. Here’s why it makes sense.
First, most resolutions are about self-improvement—this year I resolve to: quit smoking, lose weight, cut the gossip, drink less, exercise more, and so on. All those resolutions are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs—or with oneself.
In other words: resolutions often have a component of dissatisfaction with self. For many, it isn’t just dissatisfaction—it’s self-hatred. And the stronger the loathing of self, the stronger the resolutions—and the more they hurt when they go unfulfilled. It can be a very vicious circle.
Second, happy people do better. This has some verification in science, and it’s a common point of view in religion and psychology—and in common sense. People who are slightly optimistic do better in life. People who are happy are more attractive to other people. In a very real sense, you empower what you fear—and attract what you put out.
Ergo, replace resolutions with gratitude. The best way to improve oneself is paradoxical—start by being grateful for what you already have. That turns your aspirations from negative (fixing a bad situation) to positive (making a fine situation even better).
Gratitude forces our attention outwards, to others—a common recommendation of almost all spiritual programs.
Finally, gratitude calms us. We worry less. We don’t obsess. We attract others by our calm, which makes our lives connected and meaningful. And before long, we tend to smoke less, drink less, exercise more, gossip less, and so on. Which of course is what we thought we wanted in the first place.
But the real truth is—it wasn’t the resolutions we wanted. It was the peace that comes with gratitude. We had mistaken cause for effect.
Go for an attitude of gratitude. The rest is a positive side-effect.
Postscript: the article in the NYTimes on 7 January titled Happiness 101 suggests that gratitude is the most effective "strategy" of many studied in engendering happiness.