The holidays are the time for generosity, kindness and joy to be embraced and expressed in a fullness of spirit. They can be a high watermark for how we treat friends and strangers alike; a model for when mistletoes and tree ornaments are returned to storage. It's a blessed and beautiful time of year, to be sure.
When the mountains of gift-wrapping paper disappear like receding glaciers and the house guests acknowledge your social cues to vanish, the holiday is drawn to an end.
Looming next on the horizon are New Year’s resolutions; the societally agreed-upon starting line when positive changes to your life can officially begin; the annual reset button of best intentions.
Whether it be eating better food, frequent exercise, saving more money or drinking less booze, the intentions are usually good. However, New Year’s resolutions could be doing more harm than good.
The problem with resolutions and mental health begin long before January 1. The space between intention and action is, by definition, procrastination.
New Year’s resolutions are built to fail, partly because they’re rooted in avoiding immediate commitment. Tim Pychl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, calls this “culturally prescribed procrastination” and says “there’s nothing like a good intention where no action is required to make you feel good.”
The running shoe ad boldly states “just do it,” but most of us, including me, would rather think about it and do it in the future. Procrastinating is less painful and difficult but, sadly, not a formula for better mental and physical health.
New Year’s resolutions inspire lofty goals that can leave us discouraged and feeling like a sweaty failure. Setting small, specific goals and healthy lifestyle choices can lead to inspirational moments toward your bigger goal.
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu humbly stated, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This is particularly useful wisdom in the context of self-improvement and attainable resolutions. The journey to a happier, healthier self begins with a fresh food choice or beginner’s yoga routine.
The neuroscience and biology of procrastination might explain the lack of resolve in our New Year’s resolutions as well. The limbic system is the oldest and most dominant part of the brain and signals when to avoid unpleasant things. The limbic system also dominates the newer prefrontal cortex, where decision-making happens, and the result is we do what feels good: procrastination. We can intervene with therapy, medications, self-awareness and practices such as mediation and yoga. Part of the beauty of the brain is its neuroplasticity, or its ability to relearn and grow.
The chance for a restart in life and shedding unhealthy habits is always a wonderful thing. Maybe New Year’s Eve is a good time as any to make some positive promises to yourself.
If those resolutions include being patient, forgiving and kind to yourself, only positive things can happen in 2018.