By Anthony Scioli
From late December to the middle of January it is obligatory for people to make one or more New Years’ resolutions. Recent surveys reveal that the most common resolutions made by Americans include losing weight, getting fit, quitting smoking, quitting drinking, reducing debt, or getting organized. This list dovetails perfectly (unfortunately) with an international study of 24 character strengths which revealed that Americans rate themselves lowest in the virtue of “self-regulation”.
Ironically the other leading American resolutions involving getting or doing more rather than having or doing less. Americans want more socializing, more joy, and more learning. We want less and we want more. Should anyone be surprised that resolutions often fail to bring about lasting change?
Less than a handful of psychological studies have been done on New Years’ resolutions. There is scant advice in the database for the layperson to glean except that resolutions are more likely to be successful if an individual is more motivated and a goal is perceived as more important. This is not very helpful “self-help”.
As a psychologist, I would suggest that instead of a piecemeal focus on narrow goals that is bound to fail, people should aim for a higher horizon, a commitment to a more hopeful way of life.
Deep below the surface of many desperate resolutions reside the most primitive fears. The dramatic turn of the calendar on December 31st is a reminder of finitude on many levels, most poignantly, the fact that an individual has one less year. In the northern hemisphere this reminder comes when the nights are long and wind blows hard and cold. However, regardless of where one lives, a different freeze may be felt, what the existentialists call an “ego chill”, the sudden and full awareness that one day you will cease to exist.
The projected fears of the New Year are the same as the deathbed regrets of the dying. They are the twin fears of a self-aware being. “Did I live to my life to the fullest?” Have I have left a mark on the world?”
There is a strong need to feel that one did not leave too much unlived life “on the table”. Emerson put it this way:
“Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day”.
Human beings also fear the specter of oblivion. Aristotle went so far as to coin the term entelechy to refer to an essential momentum within all living things to continue to be or exist, without end, in one form or another. I believe that we all have some form of entelechy etched into our DNA.
In Living A Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “In my forty years as a rabbi, I have tended to many people in the last moments of their lives…The people who had the most trouble with death were those who felt that they had never done anything worthwhile in their lives, and if God would only give them another two or three years, maybe they would finally get it right. It was not death that frightened them; it was insignificance, the fear that they would die and leave no mark on the world.”
The answer to this existential dilemma is to live a double-life. You should balance being anchored in the here and now with investments focused on a more transcendent plane. The scientific psychology of the 20th century focused more and more on the here and now. The most obvious, and in my view, overrated example of this is the concept of “mindfulness”. At best, mindfulness, or an intentional, nonjudgmental awareness of the present is a corrective Eastern strategy for the distracted and hurried mind of the West. It is not a full program for living. Not only is it impractical to live just for the present but such a philosophy does not match up with the architecture of the brain which is dominated by the frontal lobes and other structures designed for projecting into the future or preserving the past. Human beings were meant to live in 3D, the past, present, and future.
In contrast, the American psychology of the 19th century was initially influenced by “moral philosophy”. From about 1850 to 1890, it was not uncommon for psychologists to focus on more transcendent issues such as character, values, religion, or coping with death. In the 21st century we need a more integrated philosophy.
Living a “Double – Life”
There is an old adage that “where there is life there is hope”. I would turn this around. I believe where there is hope, there is life. I understand hope as a composite of four basic needs: attachment (trust and openness), mastery (purpose and collaboration), survival (self-regulation and liberation), and spirituality (empowerment, connection, and salvation linked to a larger perceived force or entity). If you want to live more fully in the here and now while also investing in something more enduring, commit in 2013 to a life that includes more time for building and nurturing relationships, for articulating a mission in life, for increasing your perceived degrees of freedom, and for spiritual fulfillment. You will not only feel happier on a daily basis, but you will be far more likely to build an enduring legacy. Towards this end, I offer eight recommendations, two each for the four cardinal elements of hope (one for the left brain and one for the right brain).
Attachments may be the most significant sources of hope. Note that even the perennial classics of the holiday season such as A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and the Auld Lang Syne song (Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon?) all deal with the primacy of relationships.
For left brain attachment read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. For your right brain, follow this up with a live viewing of his play, Our Town. If you are seeking inspiration to nurture your relationships, it is difficult to find two better sources.
Six months before his assassination, Martin Luther King Spoke about mastery to a group of Junior High School Students in Philadelphia.
“If it is your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
For left brain mastery, go to the positive psychology website at the University of Pennsylvania and take their VIA Survey of Character Strengths. Find out what your top five strengths are and find ways to craft your life around these virtues. For right brain mastery, listen to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Survival hope is strongly infused with a sense of liberation. In contrast, the most common experience in hopelessness is a sense of entrapment. The psychologist Rollo May contrasted freedom of doing with freedom of being. To maximize your freedom of doing, May suggested making the most of your potential or taking advantage of various forms of fate or destiny such as your genetics or time and place of birth. He also noted that when your freedom of doing is restricted, as a human being, you always have the freedom to be, to adopt a particular attitude.
For left brain survival hope, I would read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. As a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl describes how he found hope by maximizing both types of freedom. For right brain survival hope I would follow Frankl with a viewing (or re-viewing) of the film Life is Beautiful.
For left brain spiritual development reflect on your spiritual type. Spiritual needs and passions will flow from your particular type. Are you a mystic seeking a sense of oneness? Are you a follower seeking structure? Are you an independent seeking support for a chosen path? Are you a collaborator looking to join forces with a powerful other? Are you a sufferer who seeks comfort? Are you a reformer seeking justice? For right brain spiritual development, I would review your list of favorite songs and find one or two that match up with your spiritual type and play them often in 2013. You can find music consistent with your particular religious affiliation that will nevertheless address your particular spiritual type. Here are six suggestions: For independent types: the Chariots of Fire theme; for followers, “Amazing Grace”; for collaborators, “Lord of the Dance”; for mystics, “Unchained Melody”; for sufferers, “Let It Be” (the Beatles); for reformers, “A Change is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke).
Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College. He is the co-author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety with Henry Biller. Dr. Scioli completed Harvard fellowships in human motivation and behavioral medicine. He co-authored the chapter on emotion for the Encyclopedia of Mental Health and currently serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Read his previous blog articles: “Why spring is the season of hope” and “Contrasting profiles in hope.”