It’s that time of year again. The time where we resolve this year is going to be different. We’re going to lose weight, get out of debt, be more organised, spend more time with family and do more exciting things. Well research from the University of Scranton, says 62% of us do anyway. Here’s the top 10 New Year Resolutions according to their report;
- Lose Weight
- Getting Organized
- Spend Less, Save More
- Enjoy Life to the Fullest
- Staying Fit and Healthy
- Learn Something Exciting
- Quit Smoking
- Help Others in Their Dreams
- Fall in Love
- Spend More Time with Family
The trouble with New Year resolutions though, is that they are often born in excitement and enthusiasm in a time where we have the time and space to reflect on what is important, but three weeks later when we’ve got dragged down by the day to day stresses of life that clarity and optimism has gone and so the change rarely lasts.
Enthusiasm is rarely enough to make a difference on its own. System and structure is critical because they don’t depend on your emotional state. If you want your changes to last, they need to happen even when you have no enthusiasm or excitement.
Gyms are packed full of people wanting to get in shape in January. By February or March most have dropped out. Do you know why?
It’s Not About Willpower
It’s not about willpower. Willpower is a limited resource. We all only have so much of it and being disciplined in one area has effects elsewhere in our life.
It’s because most people make decisions based on how they feel. So they ask themselves ‘Do I feel like going to the gym?’ Now especially when exercise is new and you have no momentum, mostly the answer is going to be a resounding No.
Exercise has many benefits and after a while you may well come to love it for what it does for you and how it makes you feel over the longer term, but there’s no immediate gratification for a new exerciser. So in effect you are asking yourself;
‘So, do I feel like doing something uncomfortable and new, that’s going to hurt and possibly make me look silly in front of lots of people that make me feel inferior?’
Kind of a loaded question huh?
That is in effect what you say to yourself when you are making a decision about something that has a long term pay off, for effort now. Of course you don’t feel like it! The secret to success is deciding when you will go when you are enthusiastic and just following the routine when you don’t feel like it. Your willpower is then only needed to show up.
This applies regardless of whether your resolution is to start exercising or to stop procrastinating. As Steven Pressfield says in Do The Work, there’s a thousand ways we can excuse ourselves from wanting to start a creative project, but all we have to do is start. We can’t demand excellence from ourselves, but we can start at whatever level we can begin at.
Today I want to share some thoughts with you that can put this spirit of optimism and renewal into the bigger context of your happiness and contentment with life.
The Three Great Projects
The idea of being happy and content can cause people to feel confused and overwhelmed. Typically people stumble from one situation to another without thinking much about the bigger picture. Most people have a vague and usually misguided idea of what will make them happy. Twenty years ago the whole direction of my life changed and I have obsessively focused on understanding what it takes to be happy. Ten years ago I wrote my book on happiness, First Face North. So I want to share one of the most important realisations I have had so that you can mentally organise your resolutions in a clearer way that will be more effective in making changes.
You see, the way that people usually think about happiness can make life seem overwhelming. There’s so much to do, so many balls to keep up in the air and so many people to keep happy. So what happens is that people waste time and effort on things that don’t matter and quite frankly people that don’t matter to them. This is like a Juggler trying to juggle 5, 10 or even 20 balls in the air. It’s too much for even the best Juggler. But even a novice Juggler, with a little effort, can manage to juggle 3 balls in the air.
For you to live a happy, content and worthwhile life, there are just three great projects that you must manage. The corollary is that all of our fears boil down to three basic fears. So I suggest that instead of trying to get everything right, you focus your thoughts and efforts on the least you can do to achieve success in these three areas.
For us to feel secure and to feel like worthwhile people who matter we have to believe that;
- we are capable people who can survive and even thrive
- we belong somewhere, that we love and are loved
- we matter, that somehow we have made a difference in the world by our living.
Project One – What’s My Strengths? Can I Survive And Even Thrive?
One of the things you soon learn when you study psychology is that there is a big disparity between what people say and what they do. Researchers in sex surveys know that they rarely get the truth to questions that might make people look ‘bad’ or ‘sad’, so people often answer in a way that makes them look ‘normal’. In the same way, people when they think philosophically will often wish to be more philanthropic, yet if we follow the money trail we see what people really value.
Why is it in this day and age that we live in a world that allows billions to go without food, clean water or shelter?
Who Would You Rather Give Your Money To?
These conditions aren’t due to a lack of money. We live in a world that can pour over $100 million of wealth into the pockets of Justin Bieber and Kanye West and $580 million into Mariah Carey and P Diddy’s bank accounts. So it is not a lack of money as much as a world that values glitter more than need or substance. Why are we so eager to give money to those in the limelight?
How is it that Ralph Lauren can amass $7.5 billion by selling clothing and accessories?
Is a Ralph Lauren shirt really that different than a well-made, but non branded shirt?
Why are we happy to pay 5 times as much for a car with status than an ordinary, reliable car?
It’s not really about the comfort, is it? It’s not 5 times as comfortable, is it? Mostly it’s about the status, the feeling that I’m worth this value. Because what all of these celebrities and premium brands do is tap into our deep seated fear;
Can I survive and even thrive?
We buy status brands because it makes us look successful. We love celebrities that make us feel good about ourselves or provide an image we aspire to. Justin Bieber is so rich because he portrays a dream image of a boyfriend to millions of adoring teenage girls. The reality is that it is a misguided and unrealistic image. If in reality these girls did get to be his girlfriend, the illusion would shatter within six months, probably much sooner.
The other side to the coin is that the ‘Star’, deep down knows they aren’t deserving of all the attention and accolades that are being laden on them and so they get confused between the flawed individual they know themselves to be and the ‘great’ image they are mistaken for. As a result their sense of being worthiness is insecure. They never know when the ground will collapse beneath them.
So you see we really seek out status symbols and power as a way of us proving to ourself and others that we are worthy. All because we are driven by a core fear that we aren’t good enough. Now fear is fuelled by attention can like a raging fire it escalates until it grows into the terror that we might end up homeless and unable to survive.
The solution of course, is to develop the self-awareness to understand our strengths and the wider awareness to know what contexts we can succeed in and then use our talents to thrive. When we develop trust in our abilities we have confidence in our ability to survive and so avoid much of the fears that make us anxious.
Project 2 – Who’s Important? Do They Care About Me?
We are intensely social animals and need to feel part of a pack. If the first need is about our place in the pecking order of the pack, the second is that there are people that love us and we love. We need people for a host of reasons, to have fun with, to stimulate us and bounce ideas off, to be our audience when we have something to say, as a benchmark to compare how we’re doing and to listen and support us emotionally during tough times.
The problem can come though when we become so concerned with what other’s think of us that it inhibits us. Some people are so focused on what others think or might think of them, that they do things that aren’t in their best interests or avoid doing what they really want to do, for fear of upsetting others. We need to define who matters to us, who we need to get along with and who we can ignore.
Project 3 – What’s Important? Does My Life Matter?
Alexander III of Macedon was a great military General, which gave him the epithet of Alexander the Great. Yet why would he want 20 cities to be named after him? What is it that drove him and others like him to want to conquer more and more of the world at great risk?
There is a need in all of us to feel that we have left a mark on the world. All of us have confronted our mortality and wonder if there will be any evidence that we have lived. To have lived and die never having made a difference seems a waste. It is as if we never lived at all, which drives the fear;
Do I Matter?
The last of our projects is the most vague and most difficult to achieve. It requires us to have the other two securely in place, to belong firmly within a group and to use the talents we have for a purpose greater than our self-interest, that will outlast our physical body and give ourselves fully to that cause.
To leave this world feeling satisfied that our life has been well spent we must meet these three challenges. Knowing that we belong, that we have value in the world and that we have used those talents to make the world a better place. More importantly, how we feel in this moment, tomorrow and at the end of the year is dependent on our judgement of how we are doing relative to those three challenges.
Whatever change or resolution you have is contained within this bigger picture of how we judge how our life is going. Whenever you feel despondent, it is because of how we are doing relative to these three questions. Whenever you worry or feel anxious you can trace it back to one of these three needs. Understanding the bigger picture means we only have to manage the essentials, rather than feeling that we have 20 balls in the air that all need attending to.
The secret to a happy life is finding the minimum you have to do to meet these three needs. We have a new year, let’s not waste our time on unimportant projects that will leave us no happier next year than we already are. Instead, let us make this a great and satisfying year.
Here’s to your happy New Year!