Four Proven Ways to Make Them Stick
In this holiday season, life can be very stressful for many people. It can be due to too many festive activities or the awkward moments during family gatherings. It can also be due to the painful loneliness of spending Christmas and a new year alone and grieving the loss of loved ones or broken relationships. But most of all, it is also a time for serious self-reflection.
The end of a year and the beginning of a new year is indeed an opportune time to make resolutions to turn a new page in your life. With all the disappointments and suffering in the last year still fresh in your mind, along with all the problems, you wish that things will be better next year.
That is why so many people make new-year resolutions as a way to improve themselves and create a better future. Unfortunately, both research on this topic and personal experiences tell us that only a small percentage of people are able to persist in their resolve beyond January.
Four Main Reasons Why Changes Are So Difficult For Most People
Most people fail to keep their resolution, not simply because of a lack of willpower, as if we can just will ourselves to success. Some psychologists even suggest that willpower is a limited resource; therefore, if we can avoid ego depletion, then we will have better chance of keeping our resolution (Hughes, 2019). But recent studies had shown that Baumeister’s ego-depletion hypothesis of willpower may be wrong, according to Nir Eyal (2016).
A more realistic explanation why bad habits die hard is more complicated. Real change involves at least all four aspects of a person – emotion, volition, cognition and motivation. Here are four reasons why most people fail in carrying out their resolutions:
1) Seek enjoyment (Emotion) – They still enjoy their present existence and don’t feel the desperate need for change. They want to lose weight, but don’t see it as a matter of life and death if they break their resolution to eat their favourite junk food. Furthermore, they love their hedonic pursuit too much to make sacrifices necessary for enduring change.
2) Lack responsibility (Volition) – They still blame others for their problems or make all kinds of excuses for their failure to keep their promises. They still do not see that they are the problem and they are their worst enemy.
3) Lack understanding (Cognition) – People do not realize that most of their behaviours are governed by their automatic self rather than their conscious self (O’Connor, 2014). In fact, most people are not aware of their self-serving biases, unexamined assumptions, implicit cultural practices, inner demons and all the self-sabotaging habits they have picked up over the years. They do not realize the extent of influence their bad companies have on them – such as sharing and supporting toxic ideas. They also don’t understand that building new habits takes consistency and small steps.
4) Pursue Hedonic Purpose (Motivation) – Everybody is after something, but most ordinary people are striving for the same things – better jobs, better relationships, better health, and more happiness. The problem is such hedonic pursuits do not prepare them for the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes that befall everyone (see Fowers, Richardson & Slife, 2017).
Worse still, some are driven by misguided ambitions for wealth, power, fame, or advancing some toxic ideology, often at the expense of ruining relationships and their own integrity, the true sources of self-esteem and meaning (Adler & Brett, 2009).
Here are 4 Time-Proven Ways to Make New Year Resolutions That Endure
The following principles not only fully engage a person, but also serve as the constituent processes of meaning: Purpose, Understanding, Responsibility and Enjoyment/emotional evaluation, represented by the acronym PURE (Wong, 2016).
Paradoxically, the practice of the PURE way of living well requires us to choose the narrow path of embracing and living with our unavoidable limitations, dependency, and suffering through cultivating virtues such as humility, patience, courage, wisdom, responsibility, and self-transcendence. That is why, fundamental transformation is never an easy task.
I will now briefly explain these principles in reverse order in order to illustrate the general pattern of change, beginning with where people are at the moment, feeling dissatisfied with themselves and their lives:
Feel the EMOTIONAL NEED for change
When you feel the unbearable pain of remaining the same, you will be willing to do anything, no matter how difficult, to stop the pain and restore happiness. What drove me to see a dentist and endure the pain of oral surgery, along with the subsequent pain of paying the financial costs, is the realization that my toothache had become unbearable and prevented me from eating. What drove an addict to seek rehab is the feeling that he has hit rock bottom, causing great pain not only to himself but also to all his loved ones.
That is why during my interview with APA’s Monitor on Psychology about meaning therapy, I told the interviewer that I often suggested to my clients that suffering may be a blessing in disguise, because it allows us to get rid of the dead wood in us and start a new life (Deangelis, 2018). Here is a brief case study illustrating the importance of embracing our pain as the first step towards positive change (Wong, 2019a).
Take RESPONSIBIITY for change
When you stop blaming others or circumstances for your misery and take ownership for your wellbeing, you will be taking steps to change. Not too long ago, I already made the case for responsibility as the master virtue (Wong, 2019b).
Responsibility in choosing the right path is the key to healing and flourishing. There are numerous options confronting you. Some of the most attractive options often lead you down the garden path. When something seems too good to be true, most likely it is not true. Traps are set for those who are greedy, gullible, and without a moral compass.
Choosing what is right and meaningful is always preferable to choosing what is expedient. We are not isolated individual units. We are always part of a relational network. Whatever we do can have rippling effects on others. Therefore, to assume personal and social responsibility for living the good life requires the practical wisdom of choosing the right path and the courage to pursue it in spite of limitations, risks, and sacrifices.
UNDERSTAND your true self & your role in the world
Most people don’t spend enough time reflecting on their lives and looking into their innermost being. When you examine your assumptions and beliefs about yourself, about the world, and about the mysterious spiritual unknown, you will discover your true self and your place in the world.
Understanding depends on making good use of your natural capacity for reasoning. You need to understand both your interests and strengths, and your inherent limitations and frailty. You need to understand that human beings were made to live in a community in harmony with nature and a transcendental reality. Therefore, living in an interconnected and complicated world, you need humility, acceptance, dependency, and cooperation in order to live a good life. Only within the larger schemes of thing, you can truly understand your calling – why you are placed in this world at this time of history.
Responsible use of freedom is based on developing a sense of moral responsibility (doing the right thing), instrumental responsibility (doing things with self-efficacy and conscientiousness), and social responsibility (contributing to the group and society), resulting in self-determination, confidence and success.
Understanding is an essential constituent of meaning in life for several reasons: It is like a light bulb turns on inside your head, removing the darkness of ignorance. It is like the “Aha!” experience of solving a perplexing problem; it gives you the joy of discovery and increases your confidence in overcoming obstacles in life. More importantly, a deep understanding of the self and others enables you to relate better with others and make better choices.
Discover an irresistible PURPOSE that pulls your forward
When you find a purpose that commands your passion and commitment because of its intrinsic values, you will set realistic goals and make the necessary sacrifices to strive toward these worthy objectives. A truly happy and meaningful life and death is to devote one’s entire life pursuing a worthy calling and complete one’s life mission through making the ultimate sacrifice, if necessary.
Each person has a different purpose in life depending one’s talents, temperament, culture, and circumstances. But one’s purpose should not be contrary to what is naturally and existentially good for you and society. Thus, choosing a career as a drug dealer or human trafficker cannot be a worthy and meaningful goal according to normative moral standards and universal human rights. Properly understood, what is good for humanity and what is good for the individual should be compatible, because we are all human beings.
According to Viktor Frankl (1985), the will to meaning is a spiritual and primary motivation for self-transcendence; thus, regardless of one’s chosen career, the purpose in life is always motivated by self-transcendence rather than ruthless self-interest. Frankl “emphasizes the need for a radical shift from self-focus to meaning-focus as the most promising way to lift up individuals from the dark pit of despair to a higher ground of flourishing” (Wong, 2014).
Why is Time-Tested Evidence the Best Evidence?
Time-tested evidence is the most dependable evidence. Empirical evidence can be proven wrong by new research; we know that many research papers in psychology have been retracted and many well accepted scientific conclusions have been proven wrong.
Time-tested evidence is different. It has been proven right across historical times, geographic boundaries, and individual differences because it is something based on human nature or nature itself (see Wong, 2019c).
The 4 principles of change introduced here are consistent not only with research evidence, but also with everyday human experience. I have applied them to myself and to my clients. You too can put it to the test.
I often assure my clients that if they are willing to trust the process and make a commitment to work with me, there will be improvement. Even though sometimes they have to feel worse before they feel better, and sometimes they may have relapses, if they persist, they will achieve their goals. So far, I have many success stories.
When people greet you “Happy new year!”, they usually refer to the hedonic type of transient happiness. Life is ironic. Everyone wants happiness, but to pursue happiness is to invite misery and suffering for two reasons. First, hedonistic pursuit makes one vulnerable to temptation and addiction. Secondly, egotistic desires can never be satisfied. In the end, even when one succeeds beyond expectations, one may still feel the dull pain of an empty soul, which can never be filled by things of this world. Unfortunately, so many people have wasted their precious lives in futile pursuits. That is why happiness cannot be the ultimate end.
Paradoxically, true happiness (the second, third and fourth types of happiness) comes from pursuing what really matters, what is noble and sacred, even when such a pursuit demands self-sacrifice and suffering. Joy fills one’s heart and soul when one believes in something sacred that transcends self-interests, actively engages in meaningful pursuits, and loves someone more than oneself.
Happiness is a fleeting emotion; that is why a pleasant life is a shallow one, Experience of meaning involves your entire being; that is why a meaningful life is purposeful and significant. That is why I wish you a blessed meaningful life by following the PURE principles.
Adler, A., & Brett, C. (Ed.). (2009). Social Interest: Adler’s Key to the Meaning of Life. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications.
Deangelis, T. (2018, October). In search of meaning. Monitor on Psychology, 49(9), 40-44. Retrieved from http://www.apamonitor-digital.org/apamonitor/201810/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=40#pg43r
Economy, P. (2019). 10 Top New Year’s Resolutions for success and Happiness in 2019. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/peter-economy/10-top-new-years-resolutions-for-success-happiness-in-2019.html
Eyal, N. (2016). Have We Been Thinking About Willpower the Wrong Way for 30 Years? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/11/have-we-been-thinking-about-willpower-the-wrong-way-for-30-years
Fowers, B. J., Richardson, F. C., & Slife, B. D. (2017). Frailty, suffering, and vice: Flourishing in the face of human limitations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
Hughes, L. (2019). What You Actually Need To Change A Bad Habit (Hint: It’s Not Willpower). Huffpost. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/willpower-habit-formation_l_5d091069e4b0e560b709db0f
O’Connor, R. (2014). Rewire: Changed your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior. New York, NY: Avery Publishing.
Wong, P. T. P. (2014). Viktor Frankl’s meaning seeking model and positive psychology. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in existential and positive psychology (pp. 149-184). New York, NY: Springer.
Wong, P. T. P. (2016). Integrative meaning therapy: From logotherapy to existential positive interventions. In P. Russo-Netzer, S. E. Schulenberg, & A. Batthyány (Eds.), Clinical perspectives on meaning: Positive and existential psychotherapy (pp. 323-342). New York, NY: Springer.
Wong, P. T. P. (2019a). A Clinical Case of Depression and Anxiety Based on Meaning Therapy and PP 2.0. Dr. Paul Wong. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/a-clinical-case-of-depression-and-anxiety-based-on-meaning-therapy-and-pp-2-0/
Wong, P. T. P. (2019b). What is the Greatest Need Today? Responsibility is the Key to Surviving and Thriving in Dangerous Time. Positive Living Newsletter. Retreived from http://www.drpaulwong.com/what-is-the-greatest-need-today-responsibility-is-the-key-to-surviving-and-thriving-in-dangerous-times/
Wong, P. T. P. (2019c). How I cracked nature’s code for positive mental health: Introduction and my search for meaning. Positive Living in Difficult Times. Retrieved from https://www.meaning.ca/article/how-i-cracked-natures-code-for-positive-mental-health-introduction-and-my-search-for-meaning/