You will make that change if you want to

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Des O’Neill

Lit­tle in hu­man na­ture es­capes the scru­tiny of schol­ar­ship, and New Year res­o­lu­tions are no ex­cep­tion. We tap into a tra­di­tion that dates back to Baby­lo­nian times. Their new year be­gan in March with the sow­ing of the crops: in an­cient Ro­man times this shifted to Jan­uary, as­so­ci­ated with Janus, the two-faced god who looked into the past and the fu­ture.

As much of health and well­be­ing de­pends on will­ing­ness to change, New Year res­o­lu­tions pro­vide a rich fo­cus of study of hu­man be­hav­iour. Most res­o­lu­tions are about health-re­lated is­sues: we tend to make the same ones year af­ter year, re­solv­ing on av­er­age 10 times to elim­i­nate a par­tic­u­lar vice.

Each rep­re­sents si­mul­ta­ne­ously a failed pre­vi­ous at­tempt and the im­pulse to con­tinue mak­ing fu­ture plans for self-change, a Beck­et­tian pact with our­selves.

Our ca­pac­ity for self-de­cep­tion is re­flected in a study of food pur­chases af­ter Christ­mas. Dur­ing the hol­i­day season food ex­pen­di­tures in­creased 15 per cent com­pared with base­line, with 75 per cent of ad­di­tional ex­pen­di­tures ac­counted for by less-healthy items. Al­though there was a mod­est in­crease in buy­ing healthy foods in the new year, the level of less-healthy foods re­mained at hol­i­day lev­els, lead­ing the au­thors to de­scribe our in­ten­tions as “New Year Res-il­lu­sions”.

False hope

Stud­ies from psy­chol­ogy pro­vide more in­sights, in par­tic­u­lar the con­cept of False Hope syn­drome, char­ac­terised by un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions about the likely speed, amount, ease, and con­se­quences of self-change at­tempts.

One of the fac­tors in False Hope syn­drome may be a fail­ure to ap­pre­ci­ate the emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors un­der­ly­ing our chal­lenges in main­tain­ing a healthy life­style. We may do bet­ter by fo­cus­ing on pos­i­tive rather than neg­a­tive goals – do­ing rather than not do­ing – and un­der­tak­ing ac­tiv­i­ties that help us to gain in­sight into our­selves and how we re­late to the pres­sures and op­por­tu­ni­ties of life.

While this may sound like a pre­scrip­tion for mind­ful­ness, many clin­i­cians re­main scep­ti­cal as to whether for­mal mind­ful­ness pro­grammes cur­rently in vogue are the best route for most of us.

In stud­ies of ef­fi­cacy of mind­ful­ness train­ing, only a small pro­por­tion took up the train­ing, sug­gest­ing that the full frontal ap­proach ben­e­fits the mi­nor­ity so dis­posed.

For the rest of us, like much of our best ex­pe­ri­ences in life, an el­lip­ti­cal ap­proach works best: the art lies in con­ceal­ing the art, so to speak. It is all the bet­ter if such a change in­volves a de­gree of plea­sure and a sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment.

Choral singing

My own ma­jor change this year, and one that I can heartily rec­om­mend as a New Year res­o­lu­tion, was to join a choral so­ci­ety, some­thing I had been con­sid­er­ing for years. It has proved a re­mark­able ex­pe­ri­ence, and I am only sorry that I did not join 20 years ago.

It is hard to dis­en­tan­gle any one el­e­ment from the many pos­i­tive strands in­volved. The choir, Our Lady’s Choral So­ci­ety, was in­cred­i­bly wel­com­ing but also with a fan­tas­tic for­ward im­pe­tus and work ethic un­der the di­rec­tion of one of Ire­land’s most re­mark­able mu­si­cians, Proinnsías Ó’Duinn.

With lit­tle pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence, I found my­self over the course of six months singing a mov­ing Beethoven ora­to­rio, a sub­lime Schu­bert Mass, three per­for­mances of the Mes­siah, and a de­light­fully ar­ranged Christ­mas con­cert.

The re­hearsals are as im­por­tant as the con­certs. I find my­self look­ing for­ward to Tues­day evenings when all else is cleared from my mind as I con­cen­trate on the score and singing, al­lied to the plea­sure of singing to­gether.

In ad­di­tion, there is the con­stant prox­im­ity to the beauty of the mu­sic. As a race we are not given to dis­course on aes­thet­ics in our per­sonal lives, but aes­thet­ics fea­ture in Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy of needs as the penul­ti­mate step in self-ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion, a truer un­der­stand­ing of who we are.

The aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence is un­be­liev­ably height­ened in per­form­ing in one of th­ese mas­ter­pieces, al­most as if one be­came a liv­ing char­ac­ter in a great novel or a cel­e­brated paint­ing like Rem­brandt’s

Night­watch, mov­ing from ob­server to em­bed­ded par­tic­i­pant.

While the health as­pects of choral singing are un­de­ni­able, th­ese may be over-played to the im­por­tance of how it helps us to re­think and re­shape our world, ex­pe­ri­ence plea­sure and com­pan­ion­ship, and con­nect to some­thing deep in­side through text and mu­sic.

Choral singing is not the only route to pos­i­tively en­gag­ing with self-aware­ness, plea­sure, friend­ship, aes­thet­ics and life per­spec­tive, but is a har­mo­nious route to ring­ing (and singing) in the New Year.

we may do bet­ter by fo­cus­ing on pos­i­tive rather than neg­a­tive goals – do­ing rather than not do­ing – and un­der­tak­ing ac­tiv­i­ties that help us to gain in­sight into our­selves and how we re­late to the pres­sures and op­por­tu­ni­ties of life

PHO­TO­GRAPH: IS­TOCK

Most res­o­lu­tions are about health-re­lated is­sues: we tend to make the same ones year af­ter year, re­solv­ing on av­er­age 10 times to elim­i­nate a par­tic­u­lar vice.

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