Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Irresolution, Part 2

I spoke too soon. At the very moment I was writing that we rarely reflect on why so many people break their New Year's resolutions, the New York Times was offering an article on the same subject. Link here.

The title is a marvel of concision: "New Year, New You? Nice Try." Where my theme was modest change, the article addresses the difficulty of radical change. For the most part it offers sound advice and perspective.

Moreover, it offers statistical evidence suggesting that people often fail to keep resolutions, even when it is not a new year and when their lives are at risk.

It is shocking to consider that a large majority of people who have undergone coronary bypass surgery return to the bad habits that have contributed to their disease. This shows that the fear of death does not motivate very much change.

Other points are a useful addendum to mind. Some I had mentioned before, but, upon reflection, I see that they are worth repeating. Consultant Alan Deutschman emphasizes how difficult it is to go it alone: "It's exceptionally hard to make life changes... and our efforts are doomed to failure if we try to do it on our own."

And psychologist Dr. Marion Kramer Jacobs astutely explains that it is difficult to change because if each of us became someone else tomorrow, the world would fall into social chaos.

If we each became a new Me, our ability to fulfill the roles we have in life would be disrupted. No one would recognize anyone else; no one would know where they stand in relation to anyone else; no one would know what their duties and responsibilities were; we would all be set adrift in perfect anomie.

When we refuse to change, we are contributing to social harmony. Surely, this is a positive social value.

Beyond the rules and roles that define our place in groups, there are other roles worth mentioning: those that make us function like characters in dramas.

These personae may be false selves, but if we follow them often enough people will come to expect that we will continue to do so. And we are all loath to disappoint expectations.

Permanent psychodrama is some people's version of group solidarity, so stepping out of a role will threaten the group itself. These roles are often unattractive and dysfunctional, like that of the poor, pitiful, overweight son, the hippie prodigal daughter, the self-absorbed out-of-touch artist, and so on.

If everyone expects that you will always be late for meetings, they will initially be somewhat disconcerted if you show up on time. Not because it is bad to be on time, but because they had organized their expectations around your chronic lateness.

And Dr. Jacobs makes a welcome break with conventional therapeutic wisdom when she challenges the notion that people cannot change until they are emotionally ready. To those who are convinced that they have to follow their feelings, she responds: "Don't listen to your feelings. Feelings lie."

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