This new year, resolve to be happy

Published 5:42 am Friday, December 16, 2016

As the year draws to a close, it’s time once again for that annual tradition of preparing a list of things we will feel ashamed of in the coming months.

More commonly this is referred to as our New Year’s resolutions. Growing up, it seemed like each January in school we’d be asked to list our resolutions, though as an adult, fewer people seem to inquire about my list. This is just as well. I’ve acquired the bad habit of tolerance for all manner of vice. Really, it turns out, happiness is all a matter of perspective.

What surprises me is how rare this philosophy seems to be, because every year there are dozens of stories on the same tired theme: How to maintain one’s New Year’s resolutions. Ten easy steps to help you stick to your plan of self-improvement; six secrets to changing your habits; one weird trick to help you achieve success. Et cetera.

Here’s a tip: Don’t try. Also, don’t feel so bad about it.

First — I’m not suggesting anyone not get help for serious issues. Dependency issues, deep interpersonal problems with relationships or things of that nature are fine things to correct or improve, but they also usually require the help of other people.

No, I’m thinking more of your usual list of resolutions — things like losing a few pounds, becoming more punctual or exercising more — changes that basically depend only on you. In a way, these smaller, personal deficiencies lie at the root of many greater and more serious issues.

Each one of us has a list of personal things we’re unhappy about and it’s natural and reasonable to desire to change those things if we are able. However, when we’re unable to do this, these hang ups can get in the way of enjoyment and happiness and come to harm our relationships with others leading, over a long term, to the need for major external work. Little problems beget larger problems.

There is no reason for this to be so.

In all those Januarys when we were asked in school what we’d like to change, I cannot recall if we were ever asked what we liked about ourselves. So, naturally, I was once also hyper-aware of all those things that weren’t quite right. That is, until I stumbled upon Bertrand Russell, the English mathematician and writer.

One of my favorites is “The Conquest of Happiness.” Rather than being some far-out hippie or New Age nonsense (it was written in 1930 mind you), it approaches the problem the way a mathematician might — with logic and reason. But the conclusion is simple enough: Stop worrying about yourself so much. You’re probably fine.

As Russell writes, “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.”

Which is why this, and every New Year, I will resolve to enjoy myself.

And please, feel free to join me.