The philosophical reasons to give up on New Year’s resolutions

No need to start anew.
No need to start anew.
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This year, I can’t rouse any enthusiasm for potential New Year’s resolutions. I spent much of 2017 in medical crisis, going through multiple spinal surgeries, and 2018 has been stupendously, staggeringly amazing by contrast. It feels churlish, somehow, to think about what should change or be improved, instead of being grateful for all that I’ve got. Plus, I cannot shake the lesson I learned last year, that resolutions and good intentions are no match for the devastating impact of bad luck.

I’m hardly the first to recover from serious health issues with a renewed appreciation for life and dwindling sense of self-control. John Kaag, philosophy professor at University of Massachusetts-Lowell, notes that 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche adopted a new philosophical perspective later in life, after years of illness. Though Nietzsche is famous for his “will to power” concept—the notion that humans are constantly driving to overcome resistance and assert themselves—he also wrote on “amor fati,” Latin for “a love of fate.”

In Ecce Homo, written in 1888 when Nietzsche was 44, the philosopher pondered the importance of embracing those features of our existence that might have once seemed regrettable, explains Kaag, and on the valuable role sickness played in shaping the person he became. Nietzsche was prone to illness throughout his life, suffering from migraines and depression since he was a child, which only worsened as he got older; Ecce Homo was the last book he ever wrote, as he suffered a mental breakdown shortly after which led to dementia. “He realized in later life that most of adult life exists in moments when we can’t exercise that will to power, or can only do so in destructive ways that hurt ourselves and those we love,” says Kaag.

Rather than trying to change what’s unsatisfactory with life, perhaps we would do better to re-orient ourselves, and appreciate the features of existence that are typically undervalued. That doesn’t mean that we should accept without question the status quo. I hope to develop and change in the coming year, just as I have in the past. But I’m happy to grow according to my whims and interests, allowing them to lead me to new unexpected ventures, rather than deciding my goals and direction in January and allowing those to shape my whole year.

Twentieth-century French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre argued that we cannot define ourselves in the abstract, but create our being through our choices and behavior. From this perspective, it can seem a little artificial to decide on the first of January what kind of person you’ll be for the rest of the year. “Making resolutions and self-deception go hand in hand. You promise you’ll be the same person who follows the resolution sometime in the future,” says Kaag. As the months change, you may no longer want to commit to aerobics every day or start a side hustle; you may be a different person entirely. Kaag adds that many existentialists would consider this “bad faith” behavior, a term used to describe when people act inauthentically by following ideas of how they think they should behave instead of reckoning with their own freedom.

Of course, there can be freedom and autonomy in deciding ambitions. But given that many people already live future-orientated, goal-driven lives, further resolutions are not necessarily a beneficial addition. “Most of our lives are so telic [oriented towards a goal] in nature,” says Kaag. “We’re so orientated around a telos [ultimate aim or end] and we live such instrumental lives already that resolutions seem to be just one more thing that we have to measure up to.”

Many of us have a constant stream of requirements from year to year: We study hard to get good grades to get into a good university to get a good job to earn good money… supposedly to then live a good life. But many of us are also so busy working unsatisfactory well-paid jobs that we seemingly forget to put our earnings towards a fulfilling purpose. Resolutions that strive for ever-greater success or thinner bodies or some other surface-level achievement can exacerbate this rat race. “Resolutions typically confuse the immediate for the truly important,” says Kaag. “They go after the most apparent but also the most superficial of things.”

How though, can we find a fulfilling purpose without setting clear goals? Kaag points to 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who, in his writing on how to recognize and appreciate beauty, argues that we should cultivate “purposeless purposiveness.”

“Our goal-directed lives don’t allow us to see the full scope of an object or experience,” says Kaag. “We put blinders on through our instrumentality. Purposeless purposiveness is meant to say just go for a walk, lie in the grass, spend a bit of time apart from the daily rat race. That’s the orientation that allows you to come into contact with beautiful. In our busy culture, there’s something to be said for that.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with setting resolutions and, for many people in many years, they can prove useful. Skye Cleary, philosophy lecturer at Columbia University and Barnard College, notes that resolutions provide a chance to re-assess. “Sometimes we go through life on autopilot, so caught up in busyness that we forget to think about the bigger picture,” she says. Perhaps, when adapted thoughtfully, resolutions can encourage us to take stock, abandon any ambitions that seem futile, and potentially even remind us of the importance of purposeless purposiveness.

Existentialist philosophers would likely also critique a life with absolutely no direction or purpose. “Kierkegaard described Mozart’s Don Giovanni as someone who was always drifting through life, going wherever his sexual desire took him. He was having a great time, but the problem was that he wasn’t making any real choices,” Cleary writes in an email. “For Kierkegaard, a meaningful life includes both ethical commitments—which bring stability and constancy to our lives—and aesthetic enjoyment.”

Certainly, there have been many years where I’ve enjoyed pursuing ambitious New Year’s resolutions, and I’m sure there will come a year when I’ll do so again. Kaag this year plans to adopt an atypical resolution that seeks to cultivate both purposeless purposiveness and amor fati: “I’m just going look at things more carefully, to care a little bit more,” he says. For those who do choose to make resolutions, abandon them is always an option, notes Cleary. “We can’t predict the future, and can’t predict what our future selves are going to be like. We don’t even know whether, once we get closer to our goals, whether we will still want to be that person,” she writes. “Existentially, we are both defined by our commitments, but also radically free to break them.”