New Year’s Resolutions: It Takes More Than One Swallow to Make a Spring

Happy New Year.  Chances are, you have made some New Year’s Resolutions, probably from among these most popular picks.   You either resolved to lose weight or manage your money better or quit smoking or you chose some other noble intention for 2009.  Chances are, your noble intentions will come to naught.  This article claims only 10% of people will be successful.   With odds like that, you have to ask yourself why you bother to make a resolution in the first place.

What my Thomist eyes see when I survey the popular choices for New Year’s resolutions is that people don’t really resolve to do something specific.  They aren’t resolving not get drunk at the New Year’s party, or to send thank you cards for all the wedding gifts they received a year ago, or to send in their taxes on time.  They are resolving to make lifestyle changes.  They want to be healthier, or at least thinner.  They want to be more organized, especially with money.  They want to stop smoking or to drink less.

Lifestyle changes are all about changing our habits.  Aquinas adopts the Aristotelian insight that a habit (habitus) is “a disposition whereby that which is disposed is disposed well or ill, and this, either in regard to itself or in regard to another” (I-II, Q. 49, art. 1)  Habits are not in the body, but rather in the soul which moves the body to do certain things.  If you are prone to overeating, for example, it is not your tummy which has the bad habit, but rather your “soul” which causes you to reach for a  cookie when you are hungry  rather than a carrot stick or causes you to down an entire pizza when you are stressed.  Thomas says that habits must be in the soul because  the soul, unlike the body, is not biologically conditioned to any one activity.  It has a number of different actions to choose from, and so it needs a habit which forms it to choose well.

Habits are caused by actions, and specifically by “like acts [by which] like habits are formed” (I-II, Q. 50, art. 1).  But one act is not enough.  “The Philosopher says: “As neither does one swallow nor one day make spring: so neither does one day nor a short time make a man blessed and happy.”  This is one of my favorite passages to quote.  What it means is that we need to act over and over and over again in a way consistent with the way we always want to act.  If we want to lose weight, we need to reach for the carrot over the cookie again and again.  If we occasionally reach for the cookie, we need not despair.  One cookie does not sabotage our effort to make a lifestyle change.  The more we act in a way consistent with the way we want to act, however, the less likely one deviation is to ruin us.

The reason New Year’s resolutions fail is that people resolve to stick to a certain diet or go to the gym a certain number of times a week or stop smoking entirely, and when they slip up, they despair and stop trying.  The reason they fail is that they think that bad habits can be broken easily.  They can’t.  It takes more than good intentions and it takes more than the occasional good act.  New Year’s resolutions are going to take the entire year, and chances are, the next years as well to achieve.

The good news is that good habits are hard to break too.  The more you force yourself to eat a low-calorie snack rather than junk food, the easier it will become.  The more you force yourself to go to the gym, the less forcing you’ll have to do.  And the less you keep yourself from taking a smoke break (even when you occasionally slip up) the less tempting that smoke break will be.

So make your New Year’s resolutions, whatever they may be.  But don’t count yourself a failure if on January 2nd, you finish off the leftover Christmas cookies.  You are going for a change in habit, and no habit was ever changed by one bad–or one good–act.


1 comment so far

  1. Scott Haile on

    Oh. I thought the saying was that one swallow doesn’t make *a* spring––as in, a swallow of water. But it’s a bird, and the season, huh?

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