With the New Year come the usual print and broadcast stories about resolutions -- the ones we make and perennially break. It’s a ritual as dependable as Easter eggs and July firecrackers.
My local paper reports that Portlanders are crowding gyms across the city, and getting a brave start on what is evidently a common New Year’s resolution: to lose weight and build muscle, especially after six to eight weeks of steady holiday dining.
What’s interesting (but rather a sad commentary on the clash between declining newspaper resources and readership versus increasing dependence on the Internet on the part of both newspaper reporters and their current and former readers), is the fact that the lead-off sentence in the Oregonian print story, and the headline for yesterday’s online version . . . is pretty stale news. It may not even be accurate.
A little digging by the discriminating news consumer reveals that the “fact” that four out of five gym memberships go unused is based on a survey more than six years old. This week’s story in the Oregonian links to a Livestrong.com report from last April. You have to read to the very bottom of that one, in the eighth and final paragraph, to learn that the relevant statistic, “80 percent of 40 million Americans” is attributed to Medical News Today, but there’s no link.
So then you have to Google MNT and gym memberships, and you learn that their story appeared ’way back on May 2, 2005. Even then, the precise source of the number is unidentified: the Medical News Today report credits “Recent studies,” and who knows how much further back those went? This week’s Oregonian story also links to a news report by the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association, less than a year old, that says health club memberships were up to an all-time high of 50 million in 2010.
If memberships have gone up in the past year or two, who’s to say whether that old “4-out-of-5 wasted memberships” statistic is anywhere near to correct today? Yet newspapers and online blogs, from a PRWeb report last month to the New Haven, Indiana, Bulletin, continue unquestioningly to repeat it. You'll notice that none of them mention the exact source and date of the statistic, so as not to highlight their own laziness.
This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the Internet: everybody quotes everyone else, without properly crediting (or even knowing) the original source or checking its veracity. Too often, people treat the Internet as an endless gossip line. Information proliferates, but knowledge may be dying for lack of fresh oxygen.
As an avoider of most American rituals, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, per se. They seem almost guaranteed to fail, because, on the one hand, you’re involved in a huge communal exercise, which gives it undue weight, so that, on the other, if you fail to follow through, the violation seems almost that much more flagrant. It’s as if you’ve failed the entire community.
Sometimes I decide to do something, but it’s safer not to call it a resolution. Even better, I choose to change my habits at a different time of year than Jan. 1. Either tactic removes some of the psychological pressure. For instance, I gave up eating beef, chicken, pork, and all other land-based meats on my birthday back in 2007. I also stopped drinking soda except as a cocktail mixer. I’ll just try it for a week, I told myself . . . which stretched to a month, and steadily grew to an easy habit to maintain.
Some years before that -- it’s got to have been more than a decade, now -- my wife and I got rid of our car and never got another. We use a car-sharing program for our occasional long-distance trips, heavy shopping expeditions, and socializing in the ’burbs.
If you make a change of course and keep it a secret from everyone, rather than giving it the official label of NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION, then it seems like less of a big deal if you wander off track, and almost like you’re getting away with something when you succeed!
Another potentially negative aspect of New Year’s resolutions involves their tendency toward self-denial and self-flagellation: I’m going to stop eating things that make me fat, I’m going to work harder/more often/longer at the gym, etc. Each small step is merely postponing an ultimate failure, instead of qualifying as an achievement in itself.
It seems to me that people might derive a lot more satisfaction from New Year’s resolutions, and therefore achieve greater success, if they designed them so that each small step was a victory -- such as a good deed for the day or week, or a small but steady amount put away in savings on a regular basis.
All that being said, I have “decided” to stop buying alcohol and coffee this year. I don’t have either a caffeine or booze problem; I just realized that I spend a lot of money each year on impulse buys of drinks, and that’s a significant cut I can make . . . particularly since I rarely drink coffee or alcohol straight.
It’s an austerity measure, to show Greece and England and all those other European slackers how it’s done. It’s also an exercise in self-discipline: to see whether the world looks different, to feel what it’s like to live making more conscious decisions, step by step, instead of constantly and automatically making casual and unreflective ones that, over time, add up to a lot of money.
I’ve realized that I don’t really like coffee, not straight and black. Most of the time I cut it with creams, syrups, latte foam, etc., which is where hot drinks really end up costing a lot. The only time I drink coffee black is when it’s served and there’s nothing available to put in it . . . or I really need to stay awake.
I like straight alcohol, whether a bourbon, a Nut Brown ale, or a Gewurtztraminer, a lot more. But our household budget has grown tight over the past year. If the financial front brightens, I’ll return happily to ordering hot coffee drinks and cold booze, but until then, I’ve decided on no more impulse purchases in that area.
You might say I’m resolved.