People have strong opinions about New Year’s resolutions, as I’ve been learning over the past week. In the one camp are the Resolution Deniers, who say that resolutions are stupid, pointless, and scientifically proven to fail. In the other are the diehard Resolution Proponents, who embrace the idea of wiping the slate clean and use the start of another year as a motivation to change their undisciplined ways.
Most Resolution Proponents choose two or three popular areas for improvement: diet, exercise, organization and time management. My own vaguely considered goals for the year—all of which I’ve already failed to meet—include:
But my modest attempts at self-betterment pale alongside those of a couple I met at a New Year’s Eve party last week. Together they had made 310 resolutions for 2019. How is it even possible to find so many personal habits in need of improvement?
They started off the year—and it wasn’t even midnight yet—quarrelling about how to fulfill one of the items on their list (which they had written down lest they forget any). The host, a potter, invited her guests to choose an item from her studio to take home with them so she could start making progress on one of her own resolutions for the year: to declutter. But despite the generous offer, the super-resolution couple couldn’t decide if they should take her up on it because it conflicted with their own decluttering goal. They finally reached an agreement: they would accept a vase but wouldn’t allow themselves to bring it into their house until they first got rid of something else.
I wholeheartedly endorse efforts to change. Modifying behavior is, after all, my stock in trade. But in the therapy I do, I also stress the importance of acceptance. Accepting yourself at any given point in time—new year or not—means acknowledging the reality of what is and using that as the starting point.
So if you haven’t exercised in the last six months, say, deciding to go to the gym for an hour a day would be a recipe for failure. When reality collides with unrealistic expectations, people who don’t allow for acceptance often just give up instead of modifying their goals to make them more realistic.
So go ahead and make those resolutions. Just try to work on them imperfectly. You know you’ll mess up. But you can start again, January 1st or not. If you practice acceptance, you’ll be giving yourself a better chance at achieving those three—or 310—resolutions you made for 2019.
The suicide of comedian Robin Williams this week has left us reeling. Whenever someone so successful takes his own life, we’re reminded that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Even celebrities aren’t immune to its ravages. In fact, being rich and famous may even heighten a sense of despair for someone who seems to have it all.
On TV, in the newspapers, and online, commentators, journalists, and the general public are speculating about what led to Williams’ final expression of hopelessness. Almost certainly, they are wrong. Even those of us in the mental health profession can’t always say what pushes a person over the edge. And we definitely can’t draw any conclusions about the inner torment of someone we know only from his public persona.
Even so, ignorance hasn’t stopped many from weighing in with their opinions, as a Facebook post I saw this morning highlighted. It said,”Pharmaceutical companies are evil.”
I don’t even know where to begin. Is the poster suggesting Williams was taking psychotropic meds, which led to his death? Is she alluding to the Black Box warnings on some antidepressants about the potential side-effect of increased suicidal ideation (usually among teens and young adults)? The only thing we know for sure is that whatever treatment Williams was receiving, it failed.
I doubt similar accusations would be lobbed at Big Pharma if someone with uncontrolled hypertension were to die of a heart attack.
Misconceptions about medications used to treat depression unfortunately keep many people who could benefit from psychopharmacology from taking full advantage of the range of options available to them. I don’t know if Robin Williams was on antidepressants. But he was in and out of therapeutic programs over the years, both for depression and for alcohol and drug abuse. He suffered from a mental illness, and it ultimately killed him.
Let’s stop all the commentary by self-proclaimed experts and simply mourn the loss of a beloved entertainer who brought happiness to millions but couldn’t find it for himself.
I just cleaned out the fridge. No more unidentifiable slimy greens in the vegetable crisper, shriveled limes in the fruit bin, and molding jars of pickled okra and salsa on the shelves. I’m planning a roasted eggplant dip and cucumber salad for dinner tonight to use up the last of this week’s CSA produce.
I was feeling pretty virtuous until I opened the freezer. Sharing space with the plastic containers of precooked beans, quinoa, and brown rice, alongside the loaves of artisian whole-grain bread, were three half-gallons of ice cream, three pints of premium gelato (there had been four until I polished one off last night—“to free up shelf space”) and three pints of frozen yogurt. I’d purchased one of the gelatos and one of the frozen yogurts. My husband had stockpiled the rest.
He’s pretty health-conscious most of the time, avoiding excess salt, eating massive salads every night, and eschewing red meat. Formerly a cooked vegetable hater, he’s even become a devotee of roasted Brussels sprouts and kale. So how to explain his frozen dessert hoarding habit?
I found the answer in a New York Times article, “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries.” Several studies of consumer choices in fast-food restaurants found that posting calorie information did little to reduce calorie consumption overall. In fact, at Subway, people actually ate higher calorie meals despite reading the nutritional information, possibly because the chain offerred a $5 special on footlong subs.
Behaviorial economists conclude that good intentions take a back seat to economic incentives when we’re choosing what to order in a restaurant. That also seems to be what’s going on when my husband shops at the Giant. When I’ve asked him to cut back on buying ice cream because I end up eating more of it than he does, he says, “But it was on sale. Two for the price of one!”
I can’t get upset with him. It’s not his fault. Behavioral economics made him do it.
So I guess I don’t have to beat myself up either for lacking the willpower to eat fruit for dessert instead of gelato. And for not choosing the frozen yogurt—which, as I said, is in ample supply in my freezer and would be a lower calorie option. Because another study of consumer behavior found that people presented with a range of healthy, neutral, and unhealthy menu items most often went for the unhealthy foods.
As psychologists do, the researcher coined a term to explain the tendency to make a nutritionally unsound decision when more nutritious choices are available: “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Just seeing the healthy menu options apparently makes us feel healthier and thus gives us the license to overindulge.
So the next time I’m tucking into a bowl of Talenti caramel cookie crunch, I won’t blame myself for my lack of willpower. And I might even top it with a dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.
Because I’ll know it’s just a case of vicarious goal fulfillment.
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