(RNS) — If New Year’s resolutions are hard to keep, it’s because the whole concept is made into a test of personal virtue or dreary personal failure.
Saving money, exercising more, eating healthier and losing weight — the top resolutions made by the third of Americans who do so, according to a December YouGov poll — are all exercises in self-improvement. But focusing on the self, experts say, is no way to improve.
Instead, success may lie in thinking collectively rather than individually.
“Try to think of yourself as participating in something larger than yourself,” said Norman Wirzba, a professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School who was recently named director of research for Duke’s Office of Climate and Sustainability.
Rather than belt-tightening, resolutions that last are more likely to involve things that make the world a better place, like working with refugees, restoring wetlands, tutoring kids, donating money, running for school board. The contribution that a person makes may be small, but the rewards of being a part of something bigger than yourself may be very big.
“There’s a lot of pain in the world right now, in our country and in all of our local communities, and everybody has a role to play,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the author of “On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World.”
Ruttenberg’s advice is also rooted in social practices: “I would invite people to think long and hard about how they’ve harmed people and ways they can change repeating patterns.”
But even if resolutions are more personal or individually drawn, making them part of a spiritual practice may be a key to keeping them.
Kevin Miguel Garcia, a spiritual coach based in Atlanta, said resolutions that slow you down are easier to stick with than those that commit you to speeding up. Garcia recommends spending about 15 minutes a day connecting to oneself or to God, by meditating, stretching, repeating a mantra, a chant or a nudge word.
“We have this low buzz of anxiety right below the surface,” said Garcia, the author of “What Makes You Bloom: Cultivating a Practice for Connecting With Your Divine Self.” The antidote is to stay still, even if it’s for a short time.
If you can. “Some folks can’t even do 15 minutes,” Garcia said. If that’s you, “do three. And if you can’t do three, well, then do one. Can you sit there and breathe for a minute and just speak kindly to yourself — be nice to yourself for a minute?”
Resolutions don’t have to center on a ritual practice but they help. Kevin Jordan, an Austin, Texas, hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator, set himself a challenge for 2024 to stop imposing expectations onto people who seek his help and instead be more open and present to who they are and their expectations.
“My job is not to ‘should’ on another person, to change or fix them but to love them and learn from them,” he said in a phone interview.
Like Garcia, Jordan is a champion of meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, to help him focus on his goal. But he also pairs it with centering prayer, a Roman Catholic practice in which a person uses a word or short phrase to help them focus on their intentions. For Jordan the phrase is his intention is to be an agent of divine love.
“I start by just opening my hands,” said Jordan. “Then I raise my arms and with a sense of allowing whatever God wants to do and whatever the day brings my way. Then I bring my head back down and put my, both my hands over my heart. And then the last movement is bringing my hands back out kind of vertically, so that I can attend to the day and to others.”
Journaling about your resolution, whatever the goal, is another way to give it longevity. J. Dana Trent, a writer and teacher of world religions in Raleigh, North Carolina, said she often makes resolutions, but is intentional about including them in her morning spiritual practice of at least 15 minutes of journaling.
“It can be stream-of-consciousness, it can be prayers, gratitude, it can be as sort of kitschy as a to-do list for God to alleviate some anxiety — so, you know, God, please, assist me in this or I’m just going to turn it over to you.”