New Year’s resolutions, Stoic style

It’s that time of the year, folks! The entirely arbitrary (at least, astronomically) date of December 31st is approaching, and many of us are getting ready to celebrate the new year. And to make resolutions for the one to come.

According to “data journalist” Martin Armstrong, the three most popular resolutions for the new year are to eat healthier, get more exercise, and save more money. They are followed by more focus on self-care (i.e., get more sleep), read more, make new friends, learn a new skill, gew a new job, and take up a new hobby.

What would the Stoics say about these nine priorities, which, incidentally, most people will actually abandon a few weeks into the new year? Indeed, what would they say about the whole notion of New Year resolutions?

Stoicism is certainly about self-improvement, and yet, there are significant differences between the Stoic approach and the popular one. The obvious starting point is the oft-cited beginning words of Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchiridion 1.1)

This passage is, of course, about the dichotomy of control, one of the crucial doctrines of Stoic philosophy. Let’s see how the nine resolutions mentioned above stack up against it:

As you can readily see from the last column, all resolutions fail the test of the dichotomy of control, since they are not (entirely) under our control. What, you say, how could they not be under our control? Let’s consider a few, to show that the Stoics were not crazy. You might think that eating healthier of course is under your control. The judgment that you should eat healthier certainly is, and so is the decision to act on such judgment. But circumstances may get in your way. You may live in a “food desert,” for instance, where it’s difficult to access fruits and vegetables. Or you may not be able to afford a better diet. Or your family may not go along with the plan, and loudly complain about your new habit, which gets in the way of their favorite outing to the local fast food joint.

Okay, but surely saving more money is under your control. Again, the judgment that this is a good idea is, and the decision to act following that judgment is too. But whether you will succeed or not actually depends on external circumstances. You may be hit by unexpected bills, like those resulting from a medical emergency, for instance, and not be able to save despite your best intentions and efforts.

Reading more depends on your ability to carve out more time for yourself, which in part depends on external conditions. The same is true, obviously, for getting a new job. Or making new friends. And so forth, you get the gist.

The above considerations may be part of the explanation for why so few actually stick to New Year’s resolutions. Apparently, only 8% of people achieve what they resolved to do at the beginning of the year.

What then? Should we give up the idea of improving ourselves? Not at all. But we we might want to consider the Stoic path, which shifts goals from external outcomes (which are not under our complete control) to internal judgments (which are under our control).

Each of the resolutions above can actually be rephrased in terms of internal goals: I will do my best to eat healthier; I will do my best to make new friends; I will do my best to read more; and so forth. The difference may seem subtle, or even just a mental trick (it is!), but is of the utmost consequence, because with things thus rephrased you are now in complete control of what’s going on. While external circumstances may get in the way of you actually getting a new job, nobody but you can get in the way of making your best effort to find a new job. That’s why Epictetus makes this promise:

If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly. (Enchiridion 1.3)

Here’s another way to think about it. Each time you set yourself a goal, realize that the outcome is the result of two components: what is up to you (your judgments, your decisions, your efforts) and what is not up to you (anything external). If you successfully achieve the goal it means that the externals, lucky for you, aligned with your intentions. Don’t gloat too much about it, because in part you succeeded out of luck. If you failed to achieve the goal, despite doing your best, it means that Fortuna did not favor you this time. Well, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You will probably have another chance in the future, and you can be serene in the knowledge that you’ve done everything that was in your power to do. 

(Serenity was a big deal for the Stoics, they call it ataraxia, a state of contentedness resulting from the development of an attitude of equanimity toward externals.)

If you did not, in fact, really do everything that was in your power, then don’t reach out for the whip and start flogging your back. We are not Christians. Stoicism is a self- and other-forgiving philosophy. It’s okay, we are human beings, and very few of us are sages. Pick yourself up and try again.

Of course, for a Stoic practitioner the only New Year’s resolution truly worth making is to become a more virtuous person, improving oneself in the practice of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, courage, justice, and temperance. That’s because:

What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly? (Discourses I, 4.5)

Needless to say, becoming more virtuous is under your control. But why wait for that arbitrary date, January 1st? As Epictetus reminds us:

When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day. (Enchiridion 51.2)

So forget New Year’s resolutions. Resolve every day to try to become better than you were yesterday, no matter what’s the date on the calendar. What are you waiting for? The Olympics have already started.

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 12 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 12 exclusive posts