But does making New Year resolutions actually produce greater happiness or health?

New Years Resolutions – why do so many of us engage in this strange ritual? Every year we promise ourselves new fitness and health goals, along with character-changing targets. Nowadays there are even apps to help us keep track of those goals.

It turns out this idea of making annual resolutions is nothing new. A little research reveals that this time-honoured tradition goes back thousands of years. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year, so did the Romans. In medieval times knights took a yearly vow to recommit to chivalry. So are we just unthinkingly repeating a ritual that we hope will bring us better health or happiness – preferably both?

But does making these resolutions actually produce greater happiness or health? Probably not. Surveys show that most of us do not keep them after six months. And do we even believe we can change?

According to an article in Scientific American, there is a universal belief that, once adulthood sets in, one’s personality is set in stone – immovable. If this is the case, then no number of New Year’s resolutions can change us. A rather depressing thought! But the article points to new research from the University of Manchester, England, which investigated how “evolving character traits relate to life satisfaction.” What they discovered was that “… the participants’ character changed during those four years at least as much as demographic factors, such as marital status or employment. And those small personality shifts were more closely tied to life satisfaction than the other indicators were.”.

The article continues with further findings at the University of Stirling in Scotland from research psychologist Christopher Boyce, lead author of the Social Indicators Research study. He states that “not only does personality change occur, but it is an important influence and a possible route to greater well-being.”

Changing habits of thought and action do not have anything to do with the time of year or the tradition of making resolutions. It is incremental over time. New concepts to be adopted can come to our thought on a daily basis. Old patterns of thinking can give way to fresh ideas about health and wellbeing, and the steps we can take to bring them about. But is there a specific way to successfully introduce new habits? Can we force them with a resolution?

Rather than trying to ‘will’ change with positive thinking, try developing a daily spiritual practice that supports your desire to change how you see yourself and the world. For example, a friend of mine finds her meditation and yoga routines helpful in coping with the daily stresses of life. Studies show that they are helpful; but I am thinking more about the transformation of thought and character that brings a sense of renewal, rather than finding a coping mechanism for life.

I asked another friend about whether he felt the practice of Christian prayer was transformative. He replied, “Prayer can change the way we think, but only if we’re receptive to receiving new ideas. It can bring healing too.” There are many examples of thought leaders around the world who have found that receptivity is essential to progress, and it became the catalyst for change both in them and, in many cases, the world. Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and of course, Nelson Mandela are a few examples. St. Paul, who himself experienced a spectacular transformation of thought – one that changed the course of history – said, “Be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Creating a foundation in our life that allows us to be more open and yielding to better – even divine – ideas about healthier living is an ongoing process. So, rather than a once a year all or nothing resolution that we forget in a few days or weeks, a more helpful approach would be a willingness to change – no matter what the date the calendar indicates.

This post was published in the Vancouver Sun HERE