New Year's is traditionally when we reflect upon the year gone by and make solemn resolutions for the twelve months to come. Surveys find self-improvement rather than saving the world is most often on Americans' minds.
The most popular vows are to lose weight, exercise more, save more money, stop smoking, and spend more time with family and loved ones. Most of those resolutions, especially the weight-loss ones, don't last past Superbowl Sunday snacks and certainly disappear with the first Valentine's Day chocolates.
So are resolutions pointless? Should we all instead resolve not to engage in the futile and doomed effort of making promises to ourselves that we cannot keep?
Looking back and looking ahead are not just characteristics of a mythical deity. They are unique abilities of all human beings, aspects of the capacity for conceptual knowledge that differentiates us from lower animals. Our memories can reach out beyond the moment in which we actually exist to times gone by. We can reflect that "Boy, did I make the right choice earning that degree, marrying that wonderful person, working hard for that promotion," or "I really didn't get around to fixing up the house for resale so we could move into a larger place," or "I still didn't organize that family reunion, and some of the relatives aren't going to be around much longer."
And our minds' imaginations can project ahead. "Boy, would I look great in pants two sizes smaller," or "I can see myself finally being able to speak Spanish so they'll put me in charge of the international division. And with the higher salary, I can send the kids to a good private school."
With memory and imagination, it's natural that as healthy human beings we would want to better ourselves. But a reason we often fail to do so is our failure to appreciate the relationship between means and ends. A resolution is not simply a set of words or some vision detached from this world. If we want to lose weight, yes, it's important to picture ourselves thinner. But the ends—in this case, losing weight—are constituted in the means. "Losing weight" must also be seen as having a salad rather than a Super-Sized Grease Burger with Fries for lunch, and having fruit and yogurt rather than nachos and ice cream for an afternoon pick-me-up. It must be seen as walking the four blocks to the store rather than driving. It must be seen as all the steps that go into losing weight. Our wills and imaginations must work together.
Symbolism is also important to our consciousness; that's why we often set aside certain days as times to reflect upon and honor what we value: Thanksgiving Day for prosperity, July Fourth for freedom. Thus New Year's Day is a good symbolic time to place ourselves on a better path.
But we must take care not to be enslaved by the symbol. My friend Talia, who looks great but thinks she needs to lose a few more pounds, explained to me the dangers of the "start-on-Monday" diet. The beginning of the week is a nice symbolic time to begin a project. But if you fall off the wagon on Tuesday, it's an error to wait for that magic, beginning-of-the-week day to start anew. Don't wait on the weight; do it now.
Different cultures mark one revolution of the Earth around the sun on different days. It's January 1 for the West, late January for the Chinese, and all over the calendar for other cultures. But any day that you see the need to act to make your life better and happier is the right day to start and to stick with it.
So this year, why not resolve to achieve all those great goals, to remember that your life is a 365-day-per-year project and thus that every day is New Year's Day.