In Defense of New Year’s Resolutions

The New Year’s commitment to self-improvement through resolutions is widely viewed with cynicism, in part because New Year’s resolutions go so notoriously unmet. After years of excitedly committing to a new goal — only to abandon the quest by March — it’s easy to conclude that New Year’s resolutions are an exercise in futility. 

But this attitude is false and self-destructive. Making New Year’s resolutions does not have to be futile. Done seriously, it is an act of profound moral significance that embodies the essence of a life well lived.

Consider what a New Year’s resolution consists of: We look at where we are in some area of life, think about where we want to be and then set ourselves a goal to get there. We are tired of feeling chubby and lethargic, say, and want the improved appearance and greater energy level that comes with greater fitness. So we resolve to take up a fun athletic activity — like tennis or a martial art — and plan to do it three times a week.

Is this a laughable act of self-delusion? Hardly. If it were, then how would anyone ever achieve anything in life? In fact, to make a New Year’s resolution is to recognize the undeniable reality that successful goal-pursuit is possible — the reality that almost everyone at one time or another has set and achieved long-range goals. Indeed, it is not only possible to achieve long-range goals; it’s necessary for success in life.

To make a New Year’s resolution is also to recognize that secure finances, rewarding careers and romances do not just happen automatically. To get what we want, we must consciously choose and achieve the right goals. We must be goal-directed.

The alternative to a goal-directed orientation is to live life passively, acting without carefully deciding what we’re doing with our lives and why. How many people do you know who are in the career they fell into out of school, even if it is not very satisfying? Or who have children at a certain age because that’s what is expected, even if it’s not what they really want? Or who spend endless hours of free time in front of the TV, since that’s the most readily available form of relaxation? Or who follow a life routine that they never really chose and don’t truly enjoy, but that has the force of habit?

The goal-directedness embodied by New Year’s resolutions is the exception in lives ruled by passively accepted forces: unexamined routine, short-range desires or alleged duties. It is the passive approach to happiness that makes so many resolutions peter out, lost in the shuffle of life or abandoned due to lost motivation. More broadly than its impact on New Year’s resolutions, the passive approach to happiness is the reason people go through life without ever getting — or even knowing — what they really want.

Writing off New Year’s resolutions because so many fail reinforces the passive approach to life that causes so many resolutions — and so many other dreams — to fail. The solution to failed New Year’s resolutions is not to abandon making resolutions but to commit to a broader resolution: a goal-directed life.

Make 2011 the year to resolve to think about how to make your life better every day. Resolve to set goals, not just in one or two aspects of life, but in every important aspect and in your life as a whole. Resolve to pursue the goals that will make you successful and happy — not as the exception in a life of passivity, but as the rule that becomes second nature.

If you do this, you will be resolving to do the most important thing of all: to take your happiness seriously.

Alex Epstein is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.