New Year’s resolutions – are they really worth the pain?

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The first week in January can be nothing short of melancholic as we take down our decorations and return to real world after the Christmas break.

As joyful tidings give way to some of the coldest and shortest days of the year, discarded Christmas trees provide a fitting metaphor for unease of festive excess, depleted bank accounts and the hollow reality of our meaningless existence.

Many of us will return to the office with mountains of unread emails, new objectives to complete and loose ends to pull together. Elsewhere students return to study, businesses rush to files their taxes and accountants will see the one of their busiest periods of the year. With so much going on, the first weeks of January are an ambitious time to take on the added burden of a fitness regime, or eliminate a well ingrained habit.

A quick scan of my inbox this week reveals a flood of emails with the same enduring cliché ‘A New Year, New You’ or variations on the theme. Over the coming weeks we can expect to be deluged with a full frontal marketing blitz encouraging us to stop smoking, kick caffeine, join a gym, stay sober, lose weight, get a new job, learn a language, eat healthily and get fit. The message is clear; changing your life is just a few mouse clicks away.

Simultaneously a slew of counter thought taunts us with of the futility of New Year resolutions goading us into giving-up on our ambitions of self-improvement altogether. John Oliver from The Daily Show revealed his manifesto yesterday – “enjoy your failures” whilst Guardian columnist Stuart Heritage suggests “embrace the lazy underachiever you really are”.

For those who are able to ignore the cynics, the relentless media grind won’t let us bathe in hopes of turning around our life for too long. The 10th of January is often touted as the day our willpower finally gives up whilst the 22nd of January ushers in ‘Blue Monday’, (erroneously) crowned as the unhappiest day of the year; the label was the result of a particularly successful piece of pseudoscience turned press release. In the midst of the gloom travel agents step in to plug the gaping hole of our failed resolutions (Blue Monday was conceived of by the now defunct Sky Travel) luring us into pre-packaged happiness, with glossy shots of white sand and azure blue seas – true happiness can be purchased with a credit card after all.

In my own experience, having repeatedly set grandiose resolutions and having failed time after time, I eventually decided to stop making binding New Year obligations altogether. By taking on too much after an indulgent Christmas break I was just setting myself up to fail. Instead, a few years ago I appropriated a small element of my Sino-Japanese relative’s New Year traditions, known in the West as Chinese New Year, a date which typically falls between the end of January and mid-February (the date varies from year to year depending on the cycle of the moon).

With thousands of year’s history and a bewildering set of customs that vary greatly between nations, Chinese New Year is not a subject that is easily explained. However at the core of its practices is the simple celebration of the emergence of spring and as we begin to observe the days getting longer and lighter we can apply the same optimistic portents for the year ahead to our own lives. Practically it’s a time to pay off debts, tie up loose ends and to get your house in order – quite literally – by cleaning away the cobwebs and removing unnecessary clutter before the year end. For me at least, it’s the perfect antidote to Christmas extravagances.

If following the traditions of our far eastern brethren seems too alien, January can still be a good time to work out what one really wants to achieve in the year. After the opening torrent of the working week begins to fade, the short dark nights can be a perfect time for introspection. The first week back at work can be tough for many of us but if we’re still unhappy a few weeks into the year, then it could well be a sign that it’s time to get a new job.

Of course advice is easier to give than it is to follow and I speak with caution. For everyone who quit smoking and failed this year the odds have it that there will at least be a certain ratio of winners. And for everyone who’s vowed to lose weight or give up alcohol, we have to assume that some actually will. And for all those that fail, take confidence in the fact that eliciting long lasting change from within is no easy feat and it certainly can’t be bought online. For my part I spent more than five years trying to give up smoking, constantly succeeding, relapsing and failing again. Eventually it worked. I haven’t been tempted or frustrated by cigarettes in years and I hope I’ve managed to keep an open mind to those who do, avoiding the nauseating persona of the militant and sanctimonious ex-smoker. I should add that a friend of mine, a former heavy smoker, gave up once and only once finding the whole process relatively easy. We are all different beasts and what has worked for one of us doesn’t necessarily transpose so easily to another. Whatever we’re trying to achieve, ultimately we have to find our own way.

Finally, if you want a resolution you can really keep take the advice of my colleague who vows to give up smoking every January and wins. The secret? She’s never been a smoker.

For more tips on how to get started in 2016 be sure to check out AAT Comment columnist Jen Smith’s piece 7 ways to make January the best month of the year.

The content team are the owners of AAT Comment.

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