Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year, New You? Nice Try

CHANGE — if only it were as simple as a campaign slogan.

It certainly didn’t prove to be for Oprah Winfrey, who recently demonstrated that change — at least lasting change — is often fleeting at best. A few weeks ago, Ms. Winfrey, who once weighed 237 pounds but famously whittled herself down to 160 four years ago, appeared on the cover of her O magazine, glumly displaying her new, or old, 200-pound girth.

“I didn’t just fall off the wagon,” she wrote in the January issue. “I let the wagon fall on me.”

Ms. Winfrey is hardly alone — nor is she alone in her vow to set off on (another) road to self-improvement in 2009. But if she succeeds she will be one of the few people to make good on what is essentially a New Year’s resolution.

“Most of us think that we can change our lives if we just summon the willpower and try even harder this time around,” said Alan Deutschman, the former executive director of Unboundary, a firm that counsels corporations on how to navigate change, and the author of “Change or Die,” a book that asserts that even though most people have the ability to change, they rarely do. “It’s exceptionally hard to make life changes,” Mr. Deutschman said, “and our efforts are usually doomed to failure when we try to do it on our own.”

In a season of change, in a year of change, most people who embark on a journey of self-renewal can expect anything but. Research shows that about 80 percent of people who make resolutions on Jan. 1 fall off the wagon by Valentine’s Day, according to Marti Hope Gonzales, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Such revelations will hardly come as a surprise to the repeat offenders and recidivists — that is, most of us — who year after year make, and break, the same resolutions.

Take Christie Griffin, 27, a Web editor in New York whose annual January resolve to learn to cook invariably fades by spring. “I’m pretty sure that the guys I meet aren’t intrigued by me when they find out that I survive almost solely on Honey Bunches of Oats,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

Hilary McHone, a photographer who recently moved to car-friendly South Pasadena, Calif., from New York has been unable to make good on her longstanding New Year’s resolution to get a driver’s license. Ms. McHone, 35, said she had been putting it off since botching a driving test as a teenager. “When my niece and nephew were young, I joked that I’d at the very least get my license before they did,” Ms. McHone wrote in an e-mail message. “Well, they’re now 21 and 19 and have had their licenses for several years now.”

“I have another nephew who is 4,” she added. “I am determined to get that license before he turns 16.”

These women may joke about their broken resolutions, but to suggest that most people will never change, no matter how much they want to, seems almost, well, un-American. After all, this is a country born of change (revolution), and our most cherished historical archetypes (the Pilgrims, the pioneers, the rags-to-riches entrepreneurs) are parables of reinvention. Bookstore shelves are swollen with the latest self-help books, and life-change gurus like Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil and, yes, Oprah are pop-culture icons.

But the numbers tell a different story.

Dr. Edward D. Miller, the dean of the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said more than 70 percent of coronary bypass patients revert to unhealthy habits within two years of their operation. Dr. Dean Ornish, the cardiologist and diet author, frequently cites a conclusion by a panel of nutritional experts convened in 1992 by the National Institutes of Health that two-thirds of dieters gain back any lost weight within a year.

The difficulty of changing may have evolutionary origins, said Marion Kramer Jacobs, a clinical psychologist in Laguna Beach, Calif., and author of “Take-Charge Living: How to Recast Your Role in Life ... One Scene at a Time.”

If one believes that human beings are social animals, our hierarchies within families, governments and businesses depend on people who know their roles and perform them dutifully.

“We’re hard-wired not to change quickly,” Dr. Jacobs said. “Think of what chaos would ensue if you could snap your finger and change instantly tomorrow. You would be one person today, someone else tomorrow.”

Read the rest of this interesting article here.


Paris Hotel Boutique said...

Thanks for the post. It's so true. I just read the rest of it on the Times. I think we all set unrealistic goals to change and change is so hard. That's why I don't make New Year's resolutions! Then I can't be disappointed!

Michelle said...

Great, great post! I did make a resolution to think positive this year....other than that I refused to make the same resolutions I had made for so many years. :) All those will come in good time. ;)

Ana said...

Thank you for sharing this!

Last year (after many many years of resolutions) I finally got my drivers license at the age of 32. It was a huge fear of mine, but I finally overcame it with the help of my S.O. This year's resolution ? Get a car!

Happy 2009.