The period between Christmas and New Year can be one of contemplation and motivation. The end of one year prompts recognition of the things we haven’t achieved; the start of another provides a fresh opportunity to do more and do it better, as we strive to become ever-improved versions of ourselves.
The quest for self-optimisation is a hallmark of our culture. Maybe it’s a reflection of an innate human drive towards self-actualisation, but is trying to be the best you can really that healthy? Culturally engrained ideas about the types of achievements, bodies and behaviours that are more valuable than others can leave us feeling chronically dissatisfied when we don’t meet idealised standards.
On the continuum between acceptance and change, New Year pushes us towards change, change, change. We are told to take up the latest diet, start a new exercise regime, improve our bodily appearance and revise our career goals. We’re encouraged to find fulfilment through consuming the latest fashionable foodstuffs, lifestyle experiences and travel destinations. In fact, aspiration self-improvement has itself become one of society’s most highly-regarded pursuits.
Of course, making changes in our life can be helpful - boosting health, fulfilment and sense of agency. To deride all self-improvement would be like saying people who give up smoking or take up healthy eating are simply buying into an ultimately unfulfilling quest for happiness. I’m not that cynical. However, a relentless focus on changing ourselves does come with the risk of forgetting the value of acceptance. Making resolutions can remind us that everything can be improved upon, and this generalised need for self-enhancement can leave little for us to be happy with as it is. At worst, we can struggle to accept ourselves as inherently “good enough”.
Whatever resolutions you may make, remember that self-optimistation is not a necessity - nor is it an obligation that determines your value as a human being. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are five alternative resolutions to resist the self-improvement movement;
1) Accept diet and weight are not straightforward choices.
Instead of taking up the latest diet this year, try learning about the social and cultural determinants of eating behaviours and weight status. Whether it’s anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder, high protein diets or juice cleansing, control over eating isn’t our hands alone. Yet the ability to make positive food choices and stick to a diet is held up as a pinnacle of individual virtue. 13 years of anorexia and bulimia taught me that it’s simply not that straightforward. Developing awareness of the wider complexities of diet and weight can assist in a more balanced and non-judgemental approach to our moment-by-moment choices.
2) Exercise to be healthy, not an athlete.
Instagram may be overflowing with ultra-fit people dedicating huge amounts of time and energy to their physique, but this doesn’t mean you need to do the same. Try not to fall into the trap of thinking that this amount of exercise is what the body actually needs. If you enjoy training for marathons or hitting new personal bests, then great - do it for the enjoyment. Just don’t be under the illusion that you need to do that much exercise to be healthy. In this time of optimising our health to the Nth degree, we risk doing damage to ourselves by thinking that more is always better. If you happen to start a new exercise regime and feel tired one day, try listening to that bodily feedback instead of a generic fitness plan that has little to do with your individual body in that moment.
3) Regard images of the “ideal” body with distrust.
Instead of drawing comparisons between your body and that of airbrushed models or professional sportspeople, cultivate compassion and an appreciation for your physicality just as it is. This way, if you do make steps towards adjusting your appearance, it is from a place of fundamentally accepting and caring for your body, rather than disliking and rejecting it. Rejecting body image ideals can help us move away from thinking we “should” look a certain way, and towards a realisation that using appearance as a central measure of self-worth is not compulsory. Part of my recovery from anorexia involved learning to accept my body as inherently valuable whatever it looked like. I’d recommend it.
4) Buy things with awareness.
We face constant pressure to part with our cash. We’re told we need the latest mobile phone in order to get the most out of life; we need those flights next summer to be optimally happy. Distinguishing between needs and wants is good starting point to start consuming with more awareness, helping us to identifying the real drivers of our behaviour. You don’t have to change your habits, but the next time you buy that new item of clothes and realise it is because you’re feeling frumpy and unhappy, at least you’ll know why you are doing it.
If awareness is key, the one thing to develop in the new year is a mindfulness meditation practice. Don’t think however that this will change anything fundamental in your behaviour. Meditation isn’t another thing to be good at, another practice to consume in order to reach a specific end. Companies may buy their staff mindfulness colouring books and put on free yoga classes with the aim of boosting productivity, but commodifying mindfulness in pursuit of end results is just another change-driven phenomenon. Mindfulness is not about trying to change what you find. It is about noticing, accepting and responding helpfully to whatever you observe. Even if the process is painful, sitting with your experience can provide a firm basis for cultivating compassion and making better choices. And the irony is, the most sustainable and authentic changes come from first accepting the way things are in the present moment.
So maybe this New Year, the best resolution is to do nothing at all, and simply sit with yourself in the midst of this cluttered and chaotic world.