Resolutions Aren't So Bad!
Swedish psychology, Ger Chassidut, New Years, oh my.
New Year's resolutions get a bad rap. In Jewish circles they are looked down upon because hey, we have our New Year already and secular resolutions can seem shallow compared to the deep soul searching that we attempt to practice around the High Holidays. Even in secular circles as well, it feels as if the idea of resolutions has become a toxic concept. In response to that trend, Swedish psychology professor Per Carlbring1 decided to run a study on what made the most effective New Year’s resolutions.
His group’s peer-reviewed research split participants into three groups. One filled out a questionnaire about their resolutions and received no support. Another group had to name vague resolutions and then list family and friends who would send them a small amount of support emails throughout. The final group had to make explicit and detailed resolutions and received the most support emails from their system.
At the end of the year, it turned out that the second group, the ones who had more vague resolutions and only a little bit of support, performed the best. The study group had two takeaways from this. They found that becoming too focused on getting something done in an exact way left people ultimately disappointed and eventually more willing to give up because they could never achieve it fully. The other had to do with phrasing. Framing resolutions as approach goals as opposed to avoidance goals made for a higher success rate. Think of saying “I am going to move my body 45 minutes a day” instead of saying “I am never going to watch a half season of a Netflix show in one sitting.”
When I read this research, it seemed that their research showed that resolutions need to help us really live life. They need to be actions that allow us to feel like we are really doing something for ourselves, with a tangible benefit. Too often, they feel like we are just checking something off of a to-do list or focusing so hard on accomplishing something in a specific way that we forgot why we’re doing it in the first place.
It is fitting that the turn of the secular calendar often occurs as we are moving between the end of Bereishit and the beginning of Shemot. It is a time in our Torah narrative where we learn a lot about transitions. While that happened in our reading cycle a couple of weeks ago, the shift is still relevant.
In the first verse of Parshat Va’yehi, the last section of the book of Genesis, we are told that “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt.” Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenburg Alter, the 1st Rebbe of the Gerrer dynasty, wrote the following:
“Scripture could have just wrote here Jacob was in Egypt. By writing “lived,” it wanted to teach that he was truly alive even in Egypt. Life here means being attached to the root and source from which the life-force ever flows.”
In other words, the first Gerrer Rebbe argues that the Torah specifically mentioned Jacob living as opposed to being because that in essence is what marked this period of his life. Even in Egypt, for the Rabbis a place of great spiritual narrowness, he found a way to live fully. There is a real value add when we as human beings begin to live instead of just “doing.”
It is being connected to the root of what makes life so special. It’s about finding pockets of your life that nourish you while moving from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. Ask your self more, “what can I do?” instead of “what can’t I do?”
This has been a year (and more!) for the world in which we have felt the the lowliness of “Egypt,” that living in narrow straits. The Israelites in the beginning of Exodus continue to feel this. Normally, we might see resolutions popping up and scoff at them. We don’t want to hear it, just like they didn’t even want to hear Moses telling them he had a path to freedom. Their spirits were crushed and so may ours.
This year though, maybe we can lean into resolutions a bit more. We can take a joint lesson from the Swedish study and the teaching of the Gerrer Rebbe. Whatever it is that you choose to take on, make sure you are pursuing something new for yourself, find those that can support you, and make sure that you are really living it instead of just going through the motions for the sake of finishing the task.
Sending wishes for a happy, joyous, and most importantly a healthy New Year.