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Skip the Empty New Year’s Resolutions, and Vow for Lifelong Change

Here's what you should do first.

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illustration of woman walking away from new years party into relaxing landscape
Jin Xia
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Rachel Yehuda was 57 when she left Manhattan for Burning Man, the eight-day, radical self-expression celebration in the wind-swept Nevada desert that attracts 80,000 each summer. “You get to an age when you think you’ve lived most of your life,” explains Yehuda, professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. “That mindset can inhibit you from living. But that perspective couldn’t be more wrong.”

The new year is the classic time to evaluate your life and the mindset Dr. Yehuda advocates. And, if our goal is to contemplate 2022’s triumphs and disasters, take action to slow down, get healthier and better our lives, why do so many folks descend on Times Square and obliterate themselves amidst boozy strangers? Even with the COVID restrictions of December 2021, some 58,000 revelers still packed the streets to watch the crystal-faceted, 11, 875-pound ball make its historic drop.

Millions of people sit there watching the spectacle, fresh from their own alcohol-drenched parties — and wake up Jan. 1 with headaches and self-loathing. What’s reinvigorating about that?

Even if you skip the festivities and resulting hangovers, typical resolutions are fleeting and usually don’t come through. Do you truly want to change your lifestyle, your relationships, yourself? If so, how can you bypass empty New Year’s resolutions, and find real metamorphosis?

First, set aside a few hours or a day to stop everything. My fantasy is that New Year’s Day is designated as a national holiday with 24 hours of mandatory silence, as if all 331-million plus citizens of the United States were on a silent monk retreat. This, instead of screaming too loudly and drinking too much, and too often ending up sick.

A typical retreat is quiet, unstructured and what is uncovered is unexpected. It’s a journey into oneself. Thomas Merton, an exceptionally wise monk, advised “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God – to pray for your own discovery.”

Next, look for happiness. For the past 33 years, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., has studied happiness at Harvard, Stanford and the University of California. Currently a Distinguished Professor at the University of California in Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky believes the key to change is seeking internal happiness.

Her research points to a realization that happiness comes from two sources: gratitude and connection. (Notice it’s not from golf, Botox or a house in the Hamptons.) “Happiness is an inside job,” she told me. “As we grow older, we naturally start to focus more on what we don’t have, and to take our accomplishments for granted. Don’t. Cultivate a daily practice of appreciating your family, your work, the goals you’ve achieved. That positive energy will fuel the second happiness driver: connection.”

Lyubomirsky’s data shows that feelings of connection lead to happiness, and vice versa. For some, connection comes with our kids, our spouse, our oldest friends, our choir group at temple or church. For others, it’s devoting ourselves to a cause — a political goal, improving the local park, improving the health of our planet. Though it’s often more difficult to forge new connections as we age, there are plenty of new relationships to be formed in offerings such as continuing education classes, travel groups and hiking clubs.

If you have trouble spots in your life, try this: Annihilate them. Don’t overthink it. List life’s disappointments on a sticky note, the back of your electricity bill, the Notes app on your phone. The biggies: relationships that do not meet your needs. Loneliness. Unhealthy eating, drinking or smoking. Lack of self-care. Destructive emotional or angry outbursts. Economic insecurity so insidious you cannot sleep at night.

“These are big problems,” confirms Professor Lyubomirsky. “They seem very overwhelming. So really all one can do, at least initially, is to break them down into their components and take baby steps – or at least the first baby step.”

To put Lyubomirsky’s advice into play, next to each problem on your list, jot down an action step you can achieve, on your own, within the next month. For instance:

Loneliness — ask three people to coffee. 

Unhappy Marriage — talk openly with your spouse about problems and find reputable resources, therapy and workshops that can help settle an unsettled marriage. (If the union ends in divorce, at least you tried.)

Hate My Job — apply to three jobs I’d enjoy.

Feel Badly About How Much I Drink or Eat — join AA, Noom or Weight Watchers.

Often, big problems require big fixes, and for the great whale problems, you must seek professional help. But sometimes the problems become amplified in your own mind, and you can shrink them by taking action on the parts you can influence.

The underlying message is that taking risks and consistently cultivating gratitude will get you to a happier, more peaceful state of mind by next New Year’s Day. Even if you cannot prevent your spouse from taking that next drink, or shrink your waist, or permanently hide the car keys from your elderly mother. Even if your kids don’t text you as often as you’d like (why is three times a day too much to ask?), be thankful for what you do have. You cannot control other people or circumstances. But you can change your own attitude and expectations. If you want to be happy, no one can stop you.

On the off chance the nationwide silent holiday never materializes, here’s a tip from Everistus Okwor, a Nigerian monk who has lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, since 2012. He explains how to create your own retreat: “Human beings, irrespective of technological advances, seek their own hearts. This is only possible in quiet. Noise, chaos and technology disturb the peace in your heart. Silence and solitude help you touch the universe. Seek a peaceful, loving environment and listen to the call of your own heart.”

As for me, I will heed the tips from professionals, and listen to my own soul for what I need. My resolution is not to resolve to do anything that will not last. I resolve to be more open to life and love. To say yes more than no. To seek quiet wherever I can find it, and to listen to what the quiet tells me.

Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of four books, including The Naked Truth, which explores femininity, aging and sexuality after 50, and the New York Times best-selling memoir Crazy Love.  Visit her via her website, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Did you make any New Year's resolutions? Let us know in the comments below.

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