What are you [not] changing for New Years?
By Brian Gendron, Ph.D.
Published December 31, 2015
Biological, psychological, and socio-environmental forces interact to influence the likelihood of making good on our resolutions. Here’s some food for thought that’s been swimming around my head… maybe it’ll help.
Consistently implementing a positive, healthy life change is not easy. If it were, we wouldn’t have to treat January 1st like some proverbial line in the sand, and instead we would make self-adjustments any time we needed. Behaviors like eating habits and substance use (two commonly addressed New Year’s issues) often become so deeply ingrained at an actual physical level within the nervous system that we no longer have to think at a conscious level. We learn, then repeat certain actions over and over, and eventually switch to the ‘autopilot’ mode of information processing.
The brain has evolved to value this subconscious/automatic processing because it frees up cognitive space to focus on higher-level functioning. Sometimes as a result, however, we engage in robotic, self-destructive actions that (on some level) we know are antithetical to our overall well-being. One part of the brain has 20/20 vision but gets blindfolded by another, less rational part. These cellular networks (the ones that make you think a third slice of cake is a good idea) are built gradually over long periods of time, becoming incredibly robust, and making change quite tough.
Apparently, only 8 percent of people actually achieve their New Year’s goals, so let’s not be part of the 92 percent! Scientists employ a ‘BioPsychoSocial’ model to try and understand the labyrinth that is human development, so perhaps we can use this theory in our own quest for self-actualization. Or, at least to lose 5 pounds.
Biologically speaking, change is in our DNA. Our genetic material stipulates the way we as physical machines operate and develop in a fluid and continuous fashion throughout life. Whether in big or small ways, we do not stop changing. If we steer the ship just right, we may end up happier. Take, for example, Jody Miller, a 9-year old child who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy known as Rasmussen’s syndrome. She underwent a hemispherectomy (performed by Dr. Ben Carson… yes that Dr. Ben Carson) in which the entire left side of her cerebral cortex was removed and replaced with cerebrospinal fluid. Despite missing half of her brain, she is recovering normally with the help of trained professionals and the brain’s incredible plasticity (the ability to change, physically).
If someone like Jody can display such a tremendous amount of positive growth, surely the average person can exercise more, drink less, or build other healthy changes into their daily life, right? But, again, all change requires development at the physical, ‘hardware’ level, and this isn’t always quick. Beware of pseudo-insight, grant enough time for change, and don’t be overly self-critical if you don’t keep up with the ideal progress you had hoped for.
Psychologically speaking, we need the right motivation to change. Humans are more likely to engage in enduring behavior when inspiration is intrinsic. If something is done for personal reward, health, or passion, rather than praise, money, or other extrinsic factors, our perseverance may be higher. How do we muster up this internal motivation? Memes, duh.
Of course, the ability to make any change is influenced by outside forces as well. Those around us can build us up or tear us down in the blink of an eye. Occasionally, we are prevented from making positive strides due to environmental pressures like work responsibilities, family, or the oppression of the man! In no way does this place the onus onto others—in fact, attributing life outcomes to external sources can be another example of the brain’s less rational, automatic processing that we should work to overcome. But, whenever possible, we should seek out people and institutions that enable our personal growth, rather than hinder it.
Change is easy, said no one. Yet, a balanced approach that considers the biological, psychological, and socio-environmental features of change may help us achieve our goals. If we don’t get there right away, that’s ok, because change takes time. It has to. Just give it time and give it your best. Happy New Year!