New Year resolutions, we all set them. We start to believe that we can improve our lives. Things are going to change for the better. We are not going to be stuck in the same old rut again this year. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a great believer in not setting goals. So, this New Year why not try something a little different?
Set no New Year resolutions at all!
In this post I’ll outline how adopting a few key Stoic principles will make 2020 your best year ever. You can do it, it is possible, read on to find out how.
Making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already. – Seneca
The Futility of New Year Resolutions
Ask yourself, how many of the 2019 New Year resolutions you set that you kept?
Albert Einstein once said,
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Perhaps then setting resolutions for 2020 is simply a way of creating unwanted stress and disappointment? I set New Year resolutions for many years. They covered the usual things: gain muscle, lose fat, stop drinking alcohol, eat better, along with many others.
It didn’t get me particularly far. We allow ourselves to start each new year with a clean slate. We tell ourselves we are going to succeed. This year will be different. But New Year resolutions tend to be dreams. These dreams lull you into believing that if you create a plan, then your life will change for the better. But we all know that life gets in the way of plans.
The resolutions we make, we break every year, usually minutes after writing them down. Problems occur, we get distracted, fall ill, or some other panic occurs. It becomes difficult to stick to a predefined plan for a few days, never mind 12 months. It is at this point that we think we’ve failed and then we give up. By February any hope of achieving what we set out to achieve at the start of the year is a distant memory.
New Year Resolutions: An Alternative
Most good things happen without a plan: falling in love, making friends, finding music you love. If you want to make 2020 count, you’ll need to be intentional. This happens not by setting goals, but by making space in your life for what matters. Enjoy the process and don’t become fixated on the end results.
And be mindful that we typically try to make too many changes at once. This spreads our focus and energy too thinly. Concentrate on a handful of Stoic principles, such as the ones I outline below. Enjoy doing these on a consistent and regular basis. The best year of your life is within reach. Give up on the madness of New Year resolutions. The first step is to start:
No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen. – Epictetus
Principle #1: Live According to Nature
Your highest purpose should be, “to live according to Nature.” In this context I use the term Nature in its widest and most universal sense. For example, this definition includes our inner nature, our reason and rationality. This requires that we are always aware of our emotions. Tune our minds to be attentive to the rationally of our decision and actions, to critically examine our thoughts. This allows us to live in harmony with the universe and in turn provides a foundation for a virtuous life.
Good and evil, negativity and positivity are concepts made by humans. Things happen to us, and we label them. In themselves, these events are not good or bad. It is our intentions and characters which are important.
Live In Accordance With Nature
To live in accordance with nature is an ongoing challenge. It demands embracing change and growth. It suggests that each person is designed to fulfil determinate ends, to survive and flourish in our environment.
What we can achieve depends on a combination of circumstances (things out of our control) and our choices (things in our control). It is only by continually making correct choices that you can align yourself with nature. From Seneca:
Our motto, as you know, is ‘Live according to Nature;’ but it is quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate unlaboured elegance, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting and forbidding.
These choices tend to be “preferred indifferents”. These usually promote the natural condition of a person. Selection of these tends to be commended by reason. The preferred indifferents include health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth and good reputation. But these are not the ultimate goal. Rather growth and change are needed to reach the ultimate goal for a human being. This is the achievement of a virtuous life, a life in according to reason. (Read this article for clarification on indifferents.)
Whether you express our ‘human nature’, depends on your choices alone. So, live a virtuous life because that is what you have been designed to do. But only you have the ability to choose to embrace it or not.
Principle #2: Change Your Attitude
Excellence is not a skill, it’s an attitude – Ralph Marston
The reason why I lost my lamp was that the thief was superior to me in vigilance. He paid however this price for the lamp, that in exchange for it he consented to become a thief: in exchange for it, to become faithless. – Epictetus
What is unnecessary is a luxury, and a waste. Why be wasteful when the unnecessary isn’t needed for happiness? When it just gets in the way of happiness and of inner peace? By eliminating the unnecessary, we make room for the essential and give ourselves more breathing space:
The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. – Socrates
Is it difficult to enjoy less? No, not particularly, but it takes a change in mindset.
When we are invited to a banquet, we take what is set before us; and were one to call upon his host to set fish upon the table or sweet things, he would be deemed absurd. Yet in a word, we ask the Gods for what they do not give; and that, although they have given us so many things! – Epictetus
Principle #3: Foster Good Habits
Quality is not an act, it is a habit – Aristotle
Developing good habits isn’t easy, but it’s definitely possible. Anything worth doing is going to take some effort. So, set your mind to doing something which takes willpower and prepare yourself for some discomfort.
The first thing to realise is that the majority of people underestimate how much effort it takes to commit to a new habit. It’s easy to start a habit, or even several of them at once. Sticking to them is another story. If you commit to forming one small, beneficial habit at a time then you’ll have more success. Make the habit as tiny as possible. Whatever you think you should do, do less. Then, if possible, less again.
Practise yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater. – Epictetus
You might think you can change your entire diet all at once, but this isn’t likely. Only try to change a habit once a day, and again, just for a few minutes. Ingrain the habit then decide if you can expand, but wait a few weeks before you even consider this.
Whatever you would make habitual, practise it; and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practise it, but habituate yourself to something else. – Epictetus
Shall I show you the muscular training of a philosopher? “What muscles are those?” – A will undisappointed; evils avoided; powers daily exercised; careful resolutions; unerring decisions. – Epictetus
Principle #4: Acknowledge we’re all in it together
Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness – Euripides
There are times when we feel that even if we are standing in a crowd, we are alone. We must go through this journey called life by ourselves, on our own terms, and attempt overcome occasional feelings of loneliness and despair in our own way.
How do we do this? The answer is in connecting with other human beings. We can share our suffering, our experiences, our common trials. The problems we face no longer become impossible when we have someone to face it with us.
The Stoics took a similar idea from Diogenes and developed it into a full blown concept. They stressed that each human being dwells in two communities. The first is the local community of our birth, and the second is the community of human argument and aspiration. A common way to understand Stoic cosmopolitanism is through Hierocles’ circle model of identity. This states that we should regard ourselves as concentric circles. The first one around the self, next immediate family, extended family, local group, citizens and humanity. Within these circles humans feel a sense of affinity or endearment towards others. The Stoics termed this Oikeiôsis. The task of citizens becomes to draw the circles somehow towards the centre.
Because we are all part of one “family,” we should work to its common good and not try to distance ourselves.
As thou thyself, whoever thou art, were made for the perfection and consummation, being a member of it, of a common society; so must every action of thine tend to the perfection and consummation of a life that is truly sociable. What action soever of thine therefore that either immediately or afar off, hath not reference to the common good, that is an exorbitant and disorderly action; yea it is seditious; as one among the people who from such and such a consent and unity, should factiously divide and separate himself. – Marcus Aurelius
Helping others with their problems so they can reciprocate, is behaving in accordance with nature:
Do not grow weary, perform your duty, and act as becomes a good man. Help one man with money, another with credit, another with your favour; this man with good advice, that one with sound maxims. – Seneca
Men must be taught to be willing to give, willing to receive, willing to return; and to place before themselves the high aim, not merely of equalling, but even of surpassing those to whom they are indebted, both in good offices and in good feeling; because the man whose duty it is to repay, can never do so unless he out-does his benefactor; – Seneca
Wouldst thou have men speak good of thee? Speak good of them. And when thou hast learned to speak good of them, try to do good unto them, and thus thou wilt reap in return their speaking good of thee. – Epictetus
And finally, the most important activity is that your make sure that you commit to acting on the above principles. Action is everything. If you take daily action then there’s almost no way that you won’t have the best possible 2020.
Do you make New Year resolutions, or not? Please leave a comment below: