Every year on New Year’s Day, people make resolutions about how to improve themselves. They promise to lose weight or spend time with their families or read more. Sadly, most of these resolutions end up unfulfilled. As with self-help in general, we are not lacking in a desire to improve ourselves, only the willpower to do so.

Many people I know make resolutions or promises to themselves each New Year. They resolve to lose weight, go to the gym, eat healthier, or drink less. They promise to spend more time with their spouses, children, outdoors, or away from work. They say they are going to read more, be a better person, or give to charity. Some people write them down and then burn them as prayers or make lists and schedules. Others pray over them or take oaths. Most people simply make promises to themselves, which are the most easily broken of all. Now, there is nothing wrong with making promises to improve ourselves. The problem is we break most of these promises. If we were to actually keep all of these resolutions for self-improvement, it would be life changing. Indeed, it would result in major changes in our culture, which remains self-centered, gluttonous, and angry. If only we could keep our resolutions!

It is the same problem that we find with the vast majority of self-help programs, most of which are unhelpful for most people. I’ve always had a problem with self-help gurus who make most of their money off of helping people, which reminds me of a Ponzi scheme. Of course, many self-help programs do try to help people. Many describe how to live a good life, yet most people know what they need to do to become better. Others try to help people organize to do all of the things they want to do or to calculate tradeoffs and let go of parts of their lives. While people who have trouble with organization certainly benefit from such programs, the real issue with self-improvement for most people is a lack of willpower. They know what is right or what is best, but they simply prefer to do what they have always done. They know they should lose weight to be healthy, but they enjoy eating and don’t want to change their diet or exercise more. They know that overwork is harmful to their relationships with family members, but they think that money will make them happier. In many cases, they are simply too weak-willed to follow through with the changes they envision. It is just too much effort.

Part of the problem is a broad misunderstanding of the nature of people, which tends to be resistant to change, prone to take the easier path, focused on the short-term, and prefers doing what feels good. Especially when it comes to giving up vice, our human natures are nearly always resistant. By this, I don’t mean merely that some people have an addictive personality, but that most people are driven to seek their own benefit first. It takes a strength of will to give up most pleasures. For most people, it takes a radical change of attitude, which for most people usually results from a life-changing experience, such as a health crisis or a divorce. In other words, true change comes not from external laws, knowledge, or standards but from an internal change of heart. It is this area where faith becomes critical – most who face these experiences learn that only God has the ability to change us from the inside. If we are seeking to change, even if only to lose weight, we will often only be successful when we are willing to ask for help to change.

There is nothing wrong with making New Year’s resolutions. We all should have goals and ambitions and be aware of what we need to do to become better people. Nevertheless, we should also recognize the limitations of self-help. Truly changing ourselves takes more than trying harder to meet an external goal. It takes a change of heart and thinking. If we really want to change, we must do more than make a resolution. Truly changing often requires help. Fortunately, help will always be given when we seek it with all our hearts.

© 2023 J.D. Manders