In a CBS poll conducted by telephone in December, 29% of Americans said they were making New Year’s resolutions, down from 43% last year. What’s behind this notable decline?
No one needs someone else’s research to know that willpower is not enough to create sustainable behavioral change. How many times have I purged my home from sweets only to succumb to temptation and invitation the minute I step out my door? But behavioral science offers us an important insight: Lasting change is more successful when external incentives, systems and patterns reinforce new behaviors, making them more tolerable in the moment and more rewarding in the long term. We may strive mightily to make it harder to do less healthy things and easier to make healthy choices, but we need the outside environment to reinforce our internal desired change.
Americans are now entering a third year of a pandemic that has made it obvious that no one can be safe or healthy in a vacuum. We don’t exist as isolated individuals. We need communal systems and incentives to help us address the challenges undermining individual physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
While Covid-19 brought this truth into sharp relief, our goals for self-care have always been held hostage to forces beyond our control. But when asked to participate in creating an environment where people will be protected from a deadly virus, too many of our compatriots have rebelled by refusing to be vaccinated and to wear barrier masks. So maybe this year some Americans think New Year’s resolutions will just add to the futility they already feel.
Rabbi Hillel, the Jewish scholar, sage and religious leader who lived in the time of Jesus summed up the existential human condition this way; “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” To fully honor and protect our life we are called to care for ourselves and the world in which we live. To live a faithful life is to strive at all times to integrate our self-interest with the wellbeing of others, because independence is at best an illusion and at worst an excuse for destructive behavior. When we separate ourselves from others out of self-interest, we ironically diminish ourselves.
We may believe Hillel’s words to be true and still struggle to put them into practice. The common good isn’t achieved on its own, especially in a time when public cooperation and compromise are shunned rather than embraced.
In Texas law today, vengeance and vigilantism are encouraged, empathy and authority eschewed. We suffer from a culture of radical individualism and anarchy, feeling helpless in the face of its power and fury. Anxiety and feelings of inadequacy overwhelm us when we know we need others but feel embarrassed about it. Even the most faithful among us may despair of ever feeling the sense of safety and security that can only be achieved when “the social systems, institutions and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people”.
The dawn of a new year invites us to commit to self-care as a corollary of nurturing interdependence. We at Faith Commons want to create friction around habits of thought and practice that undermine our health and eliminate friction for the practices of Revolutionary Love. Right now, the government may not be able to create a context in which individuals and groups can thrive, but we can—through learning together and supporting one another.
We invite you to share our New Year’s resolution to persist together in pursuing love over hate, abundance over scarcity, connection above alienation. May we be part of making 2022 a year of blessing for all through our shared efforts.