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What New Year’s resolutions say about us

You may not get to the gym this year. But you might learn more about who you are.

If you’re reading this on New Year’s Day, there’s a good chance you’ve made a few resolutions. Drawing up a new set of resolutions can be a bracing, hopeful, even comforting ritual. If you succeed, you’re the better for it, and if you fail — well, try again next year.

A resolution seems like a simple thing: a promise we make to ourselves to change. But in recent years, philosophers and psychologists have been focusing on resolutions — the promises we make to ourselves not just on New Year’s, but throughout our lives — and have concluded that there’s far more going on than we might realize.

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Our resolutions, it turns out, are also surprisingly revealing windows into our inner lives, and the ways in which we deceive and manipulate ourselves. We use resolutions, research is finding, not only to tell ourselves how we’d like to change in the future, but to make ourselves feel better about who we are today. Even when they fail — especially when they fail — resolutions can be revelatory.

The study of resolutions offers some uncomfortable truths, not least of which is that resolutions alone can actually be an impediment to meaningful change. But it’s also yielding some valuable insights into how they work when they’re effective. We’re learning more and more about how deceptive resolutions can be — but we’re also discovering how we can use them to learn more about ourselves, and to turn our hopes for change into something real.

People have been making New Year’s-style resolutions all over the world for thousands of years. The month of January has resolving built right into its name: The ancient Romans named it after the two-faced god Janus, who, with one face looking backward and the other forward, symbolized the hope that we might learn from the past to improve ourselves in the future. Influential early Americans like Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards published widely imitated lists of resolutions.

We’re all familiar with this way of thinking about resolutions: By stating your plans in plain English, you create a clearly defined target for your willpower. If you say those plans out loud, or even write them down where you can see them later, you are putting your dignity on the line. Ideally, by making a resolution, you take a longing — a desire to improve — and convert it into an action.

For many of the philosophers and psychologists who study them, however, resolutions aren’t just a straightforward act of resolve. Much of the newest research in the psychology of resolutions shows that, when you make a resolution, you’re also telling yourself a story — not just a story about the person you’ll become, but also about the kind of person you are right now. And there’s a good chance that, in telling this story, you’ll be lying.

Take a common example: resolving to go to the gym. Make that resolution, and you’re not just saying you’ll go in the future, you’re also saying that you’re already the sort of person who can simply resolve to get fit. Needless to say, there’s a good chance that reality has already proven you wrong. If a straightforward decision on Jan. 1 were really all that were keeping you from going to the gym, you’d likely have spent countless hours on the elliptical by now. In fact, you’ve probably resolved to hit the gym many times — and the simple truth is that more will have to change than just your decision to get you to start going. In resolving to go to the gym, you’re not just making a resolution that you probably can’t keep — you’re actually making an overly optimistic mistake about who you are.

Those mistakes, in fact, are part of the reason why making resolutions is so enjoyable. Overly optimistic resolutions might not have much of an effect on your actual behavior, but they do wonders for your self-image. That’s especially true when you share them. Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University who studies the ways in which we pursue our goals, devised a series of clever experiments to test how making resolutions actually affected behavior. He found that law students who had made a public commitment to working harder (by discussing their commitment to hard work with a psychologist) actually quit working earlier than students who had kept their commitments private.

Conventional wisdom, of course, would have predicted the opposite result: By making a resolution and telling other people about it, we think we’re putting pressure on ourselves to follow through. In fact, as Gollwitzer has put it, making resolutions and sharing them can create “a premature sense of completeness.” We can congratulate ourselves just for making the resolution.

In this way, resolutions can be a kind of trap: Resolve to be more patient with your kids, and you feel better about your deficiencies immediately. The more you broadcast your resolution to the world, the more convinced you become of your own virtue. Meanwhile, what seemed to you to be a brave, public commitment to action was really just a private revision in the narrative of your life. Nothing’s changed — in fact, your actual behavior may have gotten worse. In the meantime, though, you’ve magically improved your own opinion of yourself.

This way of understanding resolutions might sound discouraging. You make resolutions to steer yourself away from temptation, but resolutions turn out to be temptations, too.

Is there a way to make meaningful and effective resolutions anyway? Richard Holton, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent more than a decade studying resolutions, choices, decisions, and the weaknesses and strengths of our willpower; in 2009, his book “Willing, Wanting, Waiting” argued that our ability to make resolutions is at the center of our sense of free will. Holton says that getting resolutions right means going beneath the surface, not just of your own behavior, but also of the mental processes behind keeping resolutions.

In the first place, he suggests you make resolutions that are specific: tied not to an image of how you’d like to be (“I’m going to be a more charitable person”), but to the hard reality of how you actually behave (“I’m going to volunteer at least three hours a week, starting next week”).

They may still fail. But when they do, you’ll learn something you can use. “You don’t really find out anything about yourself if you say, ‘I’m going to treat my mother better this year.’” Holton says — all you do is tweak your self-image. “But you really learn something about yourself if you say, ‘She would really like a phone call every week — I’m going to phone her every Sunday morning,’ and then you fail to phone. . . .If you still don’t do it, then you start to realize: What is it? Did I forget? Is there something I could do to make myself less reluctant?”

That learning process does more than revise your self-image. It encourages you to look more carefully at the actual reasons you’ve failed to keep your promise. If you can’t manage one phone call a week, there’s a more serious reason you aren’t calling your mom. Once you’ve started to scratch the surface, that’s how change begins.

Effective resolutions, says Holton, also depend on a clear understanding of how change really works. The ringing, optimistic sound of the word “resolution” suggests an active process of forcing yourself to make the right choice. That’s not how Holton has come to see it. The way a resolution works, Holton argues, is by streamlining and simplifying our choices.

Fundamentally, Holton argues, a resolution is a decision you make and then refuse to reconsider. You can sabotage even the most effective resolution by indulging your thinking mind and rethinking it too soon and too often. Right now, we know that it would be a good idea to cut out carbs, or to call our mothers more often. Later, though, even our most rational-seeming thought processes might lead us to a different decision because, as Holton puts it, “temptation corrupts reason.” Under the force of temptation, we’ll conclude, rationally enough, that one pasta dinner won’t make that much of a difference. We’ll be right, but also wrong. That’s how resolutions fail.

The key, Holton has written, is to think of your goal as avoiding “judgment shift.” When you make a resolution, you’re usually thinking clearly. You want to hold onto that moment of good judgment, and let it rule your life. Ideally, you’ve sealed your resolution inside a sort of mental envelope: You can glance at the envelope to remind yourself of what you’ve decided, but you can also keep yourself from opening it and revising its contents. A good resolution, Holton says, is a rule we can follow to keep us from outthinking ourselves.

It might seem strange to think that a resolution is a choice designed to keep yourself from choosing. But it’s an idea that runs through the history of philosophy, and even theology. Real freedom doesn’t mean endless choices at all times — it means being able to choose the rules that will bind you. Looking at our lists of New Year’s resolutions, it’s easy to see them as containing our hopes and dreams. But they might work better if we thought of them as containing laws. To work, laws have to be well designed, and based on a real understanding of how we behave — and they can’t be optional.

Joshua Rothman is a doctoral candidate in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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