Editor’s Notebook: If you’ve already bailed on that New Year’s resolution, this one’s for you

January 19, 2023 6:25 am

Beautiful scenery, like this late-autumn view of Penacook Lake in Concord, may help with mindfulness, but it’s not a requirement. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

For a guy who doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions, I sure think about them a lot.

Last year around this time I summoned the late Alan Watts to help explain why resolutions are doomed to fail, and then offered a counterpoint by way of an essay by Ann Patchett titled “My Year of No Shopping.”  

“The reason resolutions fail has everything to do with why we make them and how we begin,” I wrote at the dawn of 2022. “Patchett’s resolution was actually an effort to understand what was driving her to buy things she didn’t need. By the end of the year, after a thousand little decisions not to buy this or that, she had fundamentally changed.”

To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to Patchett’s essay – or her success story – over the past year. But I continue to wrestle with the underlying question: Why is it so difficult to overcome a habit that we recognize as being harmful, whether physically or mentally?

Enter Dr. Judson Brewer.

You can look him up on YouTube or whatever podcast platform you frequent, or you can do what I did this past weekend and read his 2021 bestseller, “Unwinding Anxiety.” Either way, I offer this endorsement with full sincerity and an understanding that there is a sea of information that promises to address society’s era-defining anxiety problem: Brewer – an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist based at Brown University – just might change your life.

Although very much about anxiety, Brewer’s book could have been titled “Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail” because his focus is on the “habit loops” that keep us stuck in behaviors that we could do without.

Brewer writes: “If all we needed to do was to think our way out of a behavior, we’d just tell ourselves to stop smoking, stop eating cake, stop yelling at our kids when we are stressed, stop being anxious in general, and snap! it would work. But it doesn’t. The only sustainable way to change a habit is to update its reward value.”

So how do you hack the brain’s reward-based learning system? Brewer argues that awareness will help get you there.

For example, to help smokers tap into the reward-based learning of the cave-person brain, Brewer has them “pay attention when they smoke so they can see how rewarding smoking is to them right then and there.”

“If you really pay careful and close attention – without making any assumptions or relying on past experience to guide you – and you see that a behavior is not rewarding right now, I promise you that you will start to get less excited about doing it again,” he writes.

For over a decade, I’ve tried – largely without success – to embrace the well-documented benefits of mindful awareness. On my morning drive into work, I’ve tried to notice the trees, the rolling fields, and the human symphony of a waking world. More often than not I would pull into the parking lot completely absorbed in thought, sometimes without any real memory of how I got from my driveway to the city. 

I believed, through experience, that mindfulness was just out of reach for people like me with noisy minds. And that’s the lie. It’s not too hard; in fact it’s effortless. I just needed someone who could help me bridge the gap between metaphysical woo-woo and modern neuroscience, someone who could clearly explain the power of mindfulness as it relates to the brain’s structure and processes so I didn’t have to put all of my faith in spiritual teachers. That’s what Brewer has done for me and might do for you.

Much of the political and social dysfunction we see in the world today is not so much about entrenched ideology as it is individual behavior in the collective. For almost everybody, kindness just feels better than cruelty, curiosity just feels better than indifference, presence just feels better than being trapped in a thought cycle. But because most of us spend most of our time on autopilot, we haven’t been able to update those reward values. The price we pay for that failure – in terms of our physical and mental health and the health of the planet overall – is obvious and staggering.

So watch Brewer’s TED Talk, listen to him on Dan Harris’ “Ten Percent Happier” podcast, or find a copy of “Unwinding Anxiety.” And then start changing the world, one renewed resolution at a time.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.