The Making, and Breaking, of Resolutions Is Only Human

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What more is there to say about resolutions? All the how-to you need appears in the January issues of women's magazines. Reward your progress, they simper helpfully, as if self-reward hasn't been the problem all along.

Only 10 percent of people who make resolutions actually succeed, according to surveys. The rest of us are stuck revolving, resolving, re-solving those problems whose slippery solutions have eluded us in the past. Once more unto the breach, and the breach is a nasty place to be, one that probably requires a Lucky Strike and a pint of Chubby Hubby.

With such ridiculously miserable rates of achievement, the logical question to ask isn't how we can better reach our goals, but:

Why do we even bother making them to begin with? Are we just hopelessly stupid?

It's a journey of human optimism that originates in the subcortical structures of the brain. Those would be the regions that busy themselves with food and sex and fighting and smoking and saying yes to all the things that make us immediately feel good.

"We don't typically think about other animals having self-control struggles," says Angela Duckworth, a doctoral candidate who studies this stuff at the University of Pennsylvania. "Dogs don't grapple with 'I want to do this but I shouldn't.' "

Well, the evolution of dogs pretty much stopped with the subcortex. Humans, on the other hand, went on to get a sophisticated frontal lobe, the brain area that controls reason and other higher order functions. "That's what says, 'I should eat whole wheat bran, not doughnuts,' " says Duckworth.

Hence, the battle of the resolution. The older brain is strong and ingrained. But the newer part is what defines our humanity. At some deep level, says Duckworth, we realize that "continual resolutions are better than none at all," because they are what prevent us from losing all resolution, hauling off and eating until we throw up on the carpet. We make resolutions because they keep us human.

One day, we won't eat the doughnuts at all.

Hope springs eternal.

"Hope springs internal is more like it," Lionel Tiger says coyly. Tiger is an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University and the author of "Optimism: The Biology of Hope."

Tiger's research explores why people continue to make resolutions they won't keep, and think positively despite massively bumming contrary evidence. "As hunter-gatherers we had no choice but to be optimistic," he says. "We had to wake up each day and say, 'Boy, it's a better day than usual to catch an antelope.' " We had to say that every day, even when we'd eaten nothing but grass for three weeks. Optimism was around to counteract our own intelligence. If we didn't overestimate our chances, we wouldn't have even bothered to get out of the cave in the morning.

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