For my money, though, the most important thing is to go back to first principles, and ask whether your resolutions are the right ones in the first place. When I ask people about the resolutions that fail, they often say that what seemed important in the abstract wasn’t really worth the effort. For instance, losing weight didn’t seem worth it if it meant forgoing family meals. In other words, people imagine the benefits of meeting a resolution without the costs of doing so; when the costs actually present themselves, the resolutions often fail the cost-benefit test, leading the resolutions to be abandoned.
To solve this problem, we need to ask what we are really trying to improve. In almost every case, it is happiness. Our failed resolutions are often attempts to gain happiness indirectly—like losing weight or exercising to become more attractive and, we hope, happier. Instead, we need resolutions that bring happiness directly, so the benefits outweigh the costs immediately.
Let me suggest two direct happiness resolutions for 2021: forgiveness and gratitude.
In this difficult period in our history, from the pandemic to the culture of political contempt, there is a lot of potential for bitterness in our lives. Open up social media and you will see nonstop Olympics-level grudge matches. Even worse, estrangement between family members is strikingly common; one study published in 2015—even before the polarizing political period following the 2016 U.S. presidential election—found that about 44 percent of people were estranged from at least one relative, nearly 17 percent from someone in their immediate family.
Read: On fresh starts and New Year’s resolutions
One of the most frequent questions I get from readers is about how to deal with family conflict and estrangement. My answer is a New Year’s resolution to forgive. In experiments on forgiveness interventions—helping people forgive those who have harmed them—scholars have found clear evidence that forgiveness has direct happiness benefits. Forgiveness increases hope and self-esteem, while lowering anxiety and depression. This astounded me personally, but my wife found it blindingly obvious. “To refuse to forgive is to cling to something unpleasant,” she reminded me. “It is like hugging garbage.” I had to concede that it’s nice to let go of garbage.
Easy to say, hard to do, of course. One project to teach and foster forgiveness comes from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, which produces forgiveness workbooks for people in countries traumatized by violence and injustice. The process they recommend, using the mnemonic device REACH, is useful for all of us: (R) Recall the hurt; (E) Empathize with the offender; (A) Altruistic gift of forgiveness; (C) Commit; and (H) Hold on to forgiveness. You can run your own experiment on forgiveness and happiness by making a list of five people to forgive in the new year, and then using the REACH technique to do so in both word and deed.