On New Year’s Eve, many people across the world plan to make resolutions to better themselves in the coming year. Some will vow to quit smoking or start exercising, others will promise to spend more time with their family. The New Year’s resolution has become something of an institution in the modern world, whether they end up leading to genuine life changes or turn out to be nothing more than good intentions.
Few, however, know that the tradition of the New Year’s resolution goes back to the ancient civilization of Babylon, where the king would make a yearly confession to all his subjects, admitting all the things that he had done wrong. He would then promise to improve and announce what he would do to make amends for his errors. Now, thanks to public intellectual and author of Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Dr. Jordan Peterson, millions of people also know that this ancient annual tradition gives us insight into our deepest existence.
The fact is that most people who make a New Year’s resolution will fail. Most people won’t quit smoking. They won’t exercise or lose weight. They won’t do all those things they pledged to do. Why? Because there is less of you than you think. You do have free will to act and choose, but the armada of broken vows tells the tale that you are not alone in your decision. You are profoundly influenced by ancient structures in your unconscious mind, that evolved eons ago and that continue to shape your values, motivations and choices.
Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, describes the unconscious mind as an elephant and your conscious mind as the rider. This vivid analogy gives a visual sense of the power relationship between what you want as a conscious being, and what your unconscious motivations and urges choose for you.
Despite his or her tiny size, the rider has a surprising amount of influence over the giant elephant, but still, much of the time the beast does whatever it wants. In order to save face, the rider tries to make the elephant look good by making up reasons for why the elephant chooses as it does. In other words, people rationalize.
Tyranny of the Mind
The reason so many New Year’s resolutions fail is because we try to make tyrannical choices, hoping to enslave our unconscious mind into obeying our command. This rarely works, because we have less power over ourselves than we usually think. To some, this is an excuse to give into fatalism and defeatism. But, understood properly, knowledge of our limitations is a source of strength. After all, elephant riders do get their animals to obey surprisingly often; they do this by sweet-talking and knowing the right balance between nudging and motivating.
Jordan Peterson provides a strategy for successfully making good choices in his signature phrase, “clean your room.” Aim low. Start with simple goals, because then you have a real chance of succeeding. Once you master these, your primitive, unconscious mind gets exactly the kind of motivating feedback it needs in order to stimulate further success.
Would it surprise you to learn that conservatives have a greater appreciation and better mastery of this technique than progressives? The conservative view of life and history is that progress is hard and that one must, therefore, cherish the cultural accomplishments of our forefathers, while being lenient towards their flaws and mistakes.
Progressives, by contrast, are as totalitarian in their outlook on history as most people who make New Year’s resolutions try to be on themselves. They think progress comes easily and that all they need to do to make the world a better place is to pledge it into existence. Their wish is their own command and they are equally shocked and enraged every time reality refuses to obey, which is almost always. Nobody illustrates this point quite like today’s socialists: Like Groundhog Day, every time their ideal fails, they repeat their rationalization, “that wasn’t real socialism.”
Maybe they should learn from the ancient Babylonian kings, who every New Year took full responsibility for their failures and tried to make a realistic plan for how they would improve.