Constant self-comparison through material resolutions adds pressure to the New Year

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Sanjay Fernando

New Years resultion stress is the result of putting unhealthy pressure on yourself to achieve goals, whether realistic or not.

With the start of the new year, discussions of goals for the next 12 months have once again taken over family conversations, group chat discussions, and social media pages. 

Yet, something about the idea of New Year’s resolutions felt exhaustive. Usually, the opportunity to develop new habits and erase the memory of failed attempts is refreshing. This time, I just felt tired. And I discovered I might not be alone in this.

A TikTok that came up on my for you page by @itslennie discusses the pressure to “become a greater version of yourself,” and how you don’t need to “continuously prove your worthiness of existence” through constant improvement and setting yourself to higher standards. Likewise, I saw posts stating that surviving through a pandemic is enough of a task, and new goals aren’t necessary or reasonable considering the constant state of change we live in.

This begs the question: amidst the Covid crisis and arising questions as to how striving for material success affects our mental health and self-perception, are New Year’s Resolutions reflective of societies developing values in 2022?

In The Death (?) of the New Year’s Resolution by Annaliese Griffin on thecut.com, journalist Taylor Majewski states that, “Those ‘I’m going to lose weight this year’ or ‘I’m going to exercise more, I’m going to eat healthy, I’m going to learn to play the piano’ goals seem silly in the sense that you don’t know what life is going throw at you or society is going to throw at you.” 

Looking at the history of New Year’s resolutions, we can see how they’ve evolved to reflect the priorities of our modern western world. According to history.com, New Year’s resolutions originated with the Babylonians who used the new year to reaffirm loyalties to their king, make promises to their gods, pay debts, and return borrowed objects. The Romans would make sacrifices to deities and promise good conduct to their gods to start the year. Later, Christians developed traditions on new years eve as a time of prayer and to make resolutions. 

While I’m not promoting that New Year’s traditions should return to their religious roots, I think we should note how our goals have shifted from character improvement and spiritual connection to material success. What does this say about what we think is worthy of achieving?

Extrinsic goals–as Dr. Richard Ryan, professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University put in Griffin’s article–are what our resolutions tend to be centered around. These are achievements surrounding money, image, and influence, which people think will make them happy.

According to thetimesnews.com, the top three New Year’s resolutions include improving diet, pursuing a career ambition, and spending more time with family. Two out of three could arguably relate to extrinsic desires, which according to Ryan, do not satisfy our basic physiological needs as much as intrinsic goals. He states that, “The evidence shows that when people reflectively and mindfully get in touch with their values, they drop the stuff like weight loss; they drop the stuff like ‘make more money or more possessions.’” 

Covid-19 puts a lot of restraint on what’s in your power to attain. It’s hard to go to the gym every day when the pandemic sporadically shuts the gyms down. On the flip side, Covid-19 has allowed  (or forced) a lot of people to focus on their mental health priorities. Reflective of this, many people’s new goals have centered around mental health and their improvement.

This is a better direction to move in as it coincides much more with focusing on intrinsic values. But I question the benefits of dragging the saturated and publicized nature of New Year’s resolutions into mental health improvement. 

Effective goal-setting should be measurable and achievable through habit tracking and setting mini-goals. How functional is this in the context of overcoming depression or anxiety? To set standards and timelines on something so delicate and is heavily impacted by Covid-situations beyond one’s control can’t be incredibly helpful. To reduce the processes of mourning and grief into something that can be handled effectively within the span of a year is idealistic. I do believe specified routines or habits set out by a therapist or trusted professional who can identify what is attainable is helpful. But should we leave this type of goal setting in the hands of people struggling with mental issues, who will use extrinsic examples of progress and accountability to compare themselves too?

If you made a New Year’s resolution that you plan to succeed in, I wish you the best of luck. And if you plan to improve your mental health with a New Year’s resolution, I advise you to be careful. Know what is and isn’t within your power and don’t be discouraged when your growth isn’t as linear as you expected it to be. 

And if you’re like me, and didn’t make a resolution at all, that’s okay too.

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