Ending a blogging drought to wish you a happy and a healthy 2011.
Yes, it’s that time again, a time that many see as an occasion to set goals for the coming year – goals we hope will make our lives richer in some way, so that when next December 31 rolls around, we can say, “I’m a better and a happier person than I was last year at this time.”
Alas, we all know New Year’s resolutions are easier made than kept. Indeed, the very term is often the butt of jokes – for example, about fitness classes that swell in January, crowding out regulars who aren’t worried because they know there will be plenty of floor space again by February. This discouraging track record might argue against making any resolutions at all, on the grounds that the implicit “now or never” approach is destructive, and that it’s better to make no promises to yourself at all than to make promises you are likely to break.
Still, there’s something about the idea of a fresh start that appeals to many. If you’re one of them, why not think about ways to make your resolutions stickier, make them work for you rather than against you?
One important way is to make realistic resolutions. The likelihood of going from a couch potato to an athlete overnight is remote; change in measured steps – achieving subgoals and then (if necessary or desired) recalibrating after they’re reached – works better for most people.
You might also consider adopting positive rather than negative resolutions. Health behavior experts use the term “loss-framed” for the negative approach because it focuses on what you have to give up rather than the benefits that will accrue. Quintessential negative resolutions that come near the top of most lists are “quit smoking” and “avoid overeating” – just the ones you’d expect to encounter on this blog! But before you give up on these goals altogether in favor of “visit Grandma more often” or “spend more time with friends,” let’s see if they can perhaps be recast in a more positive, “gain-framed” light.
Instead of “quit smoking,” how about substituting “explore the joys of the nonsmoking lifestyle?” Revel in white teeth and fingernails unstained by nicotine, in clothing free of burns, in hair that smells of your favorite shampoo, not of stale cigarette smoke. Enjoy your increased lung capacity by taking long walks around your neighborhood or in the woods. Participate fully in each moment, savoring precious time with your spouse or friend grandchild without the nagging intrusion of thoughts about your next cigarette.
And as a positive alternative to “avoid overeating,” try “explore the pleasurable possibilities of eating just what I need to reach and maintain a realistic (that word again!) healthy weight.” In the spirit of replacing quantity of food with quality – something I’ve blogged about previously – you may wish to eat more “real” food (from a farm, not a package) and prepare more meals at home – both additional positive goals. You may also wish to introduce more flexibility in how much you can eat by adding some enjoyable physical activity to your day. Although “exercise more” is technically a positive goal, many of us do not see it in that light! But most of us, if we really try, can identify some physical activity that adds a little fun to the day; and remember that as weight decreases the pleasure of moving your body increases. Whatever the official exercise guidelines may say, any increase in exercise counts as a step in the right direction.
The hope, of course, is that these positive or gain-framed resolutions will be more likely to last beyond the end of the first week in January than their negative, loss-framed counterparts. But just in case, let’s add one more positive resolution: “Forgive yourself if you come up short and get right back on the merry-go-round.” Many goals worth achieving take more than one try.
For additional suggestions on how to reach the goal of being a nonsmoker who looks good and feels great, presented in a gain-framed manner, please check out my book Life After Cigarettes. It was written with you in mind.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.