Around this time of year, I assess my New Year's resolutions, which a slightly more naive version of myself made three months ago: How's it all going? Should I maybe think about canceling that six-month Pilates membership? Am I already halfway through the list of books I want to read for the year? (If this is you, what's your secret?)
In addition to those self-reflection prompts, here's a question that pops up the most when it comes to scanning my new year goals:
Wait…why am I doing this?
After a couple months of drinking unnatural amounts of water every day or attempting to touch our toes, we might become discouraged when we realize ‘Um, I don’t actually know why I’m doing this.’
Once the initial incentive runs out of steam, so do we. Without a really good reason to do something, we tend to lose interest and find something else to dream about.
As a prolific goal-setter, I've often wondered: Why do some stick and others...not so much? Why do I have eight languages going on DuoLingo but I've only stayed with one? Why did I accomplish every one of my goals in 2016 and none of them in 2017?
Here's what I've come up with: I accomplish the goals based on feeling; I abandon the goals based on thinking.
A few weeks ago I read Christina Chaey’s wonderful little piece called I’m Cooking How I Want to Feel This Year, and lightbulb went off. Christina writes about cooking her way toward a feeling (comforted, good about herself, creative) rather than cooking toward some nebulous idea of health.
I couldn't stop thinking about the phrase "cook how I want to feel," and started infusing it all over the place. A revelation! We should exercise how we want to feel, work how we want to feel, socialize how we want to feel, date how we want to feel, use our phones (or not) the way we want to feel. How we want to feel is the most powerful motivator, because, unlike a thought process, it won’t slip away.
If we're waking up extra early because we think we probably should, that will last a couple days. If we're waking up extra early because it feels so luxurious to have a half hour of quiet time illuminated by the shimmer of dawn light, that will last at least...a few days longer.
When it comes to goal-making, I don’t think we can overestimate that We are feeling creatures who think, not thinking creatures who feel.
Biologically, it makes a lot more sense for us to use feelings to make decisions rather than thoughts. For a very long time in human history, we considered ourselves as fragile and interdependent as everything else in nature. To crudely summarize, in the 16th century, philosophers began divorcing humans from nature (using the ghastly phrase "natural resources" to refer to land and animals, for instance) and believed that our logical brains are what gave us superiority over animals and nature, 'mindless machines to be exploited at will.' We began prizing thinking over feeling.
But we’re fighting an uphill battle if we pretend that thoughts are more valuable than how we feel. I suspect we all know this even if we say otherwise; humans naturally seem to be much besotted with the feelings of octopuses rather than their ability to solve puzzles, and much more captivated by the relatable grief of a gorilla than her ability to speak sign language. We seem to agree that animals are more like us through their ability to feel than their ability to think.
How we feel is at the heart of everything we do; why would goal-setting be any different?
For clarity of communication, I’m making a distinction between feeling and emotions: not two things I’d normally force into any opposition, but it's useful here. Emotions are slippery, intense, and not always indicative of our truest essence. Feeling, on the other hand, is the core of our essence. If emotions start wars, feeling ends them. Emotions are highly individualistic, whereas feeling fuels empathy and intuition—connecting us to others and the natural world rather than isolating us from them.
In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with Seerut Chawla that we could all benefit from being LESS tied to our emotions as motivators for our behavior. Our emotions are as finicky as thoughts, but feeling—that deep, intuitive gift that has guided human activity for eons—is our greatest (and often-forgot) tool.
So, back to New Year’s Resolutions: I'm doing a GREAT job of reading more in 2022...why is that?
Because this is a great example of feeling my way into a goal: Reading brightens my brain. I love the feeling of connecting with parts of my mind I didn’t know were even there. I love the feeling I get after a half hour of reading: more alert, more alive. I crave the feeling of a bright brain. I yearn for it.
Then why am I doing a horrific job at taking even ONE of the 16 (!) online group Spanish classes I signed up for?
Because I don't like looking at a screen for longer than I have to, I don't like the stress of being 'called on' in a class, and I don't care about grammar. The group classes don't make me feel good; they make me feel stressed and bad at this.
But I love the feeling of going to my private Spanish classes: I feel confident when I'm chatting one-on-one, I feel comfortable in a non-academic format, I feel excited when an hour quickly passes and I've barely had to translate anything, I feel delighted to see my sweet teacher and I feel giddy to see what she's wearing on a given day (hey, whatever works).
I wanted to read 100 Years of Solitude in Spanish this year but guess what—it was making me miserable. I dreaded picking up the book during my afternoon breaks. So, instead I bought a hilarious and poignant Mexican YA novel and I stay up too late reading it, even when I don't fully understand every sentence perfectly.
If I begin with a strict goal to learn Spanish, I might end up punishing myself into the goal by doing things I really dislike (like being in a virtual room with a bunch of strangers, no gracias). But if I start with the feeling of being more comfortable while speaking Spanish then I'm more likely to choose a format that actually makes me feel comfortable (chatting with a lovely nice person who always wears beautiful sweaters)!
Last year I made a lot of work-related goals and accomplished exactly ZERO of them because they all felt like horrible chores. But this year I've simply made one: Be in harmony with my work, and now a lot of smaller actions have quickly fallen into place: I’m paying more attention to how my days look, what I mentally consume, and whom I choose to admire.
The feeling is so motivating that I will naturally do challenging things (delete instagram, send intimidating emails) in order to capture the harmony I want so badly. This is so much better than setting a goal to "think about starting a podcast" because...uh...other people are doing it?
I just saw a movie I strongly disliked. It’s called The Worst Person in the World. You might have seen it, and you might have loved it, because it’s very very popular! We can still get along! But it didn't float my boat, and here's why:
I had no sense of motivation for any of the characters. I couldn’t tell what any of them were feeling. I couldn’t tell you why the protagonists did the work they did, liked the people they liked, wrote the things they wrote, had the friends they had. Even when they were honest about their places in life (“I feel like a side character in my own movie” would be a a great line if we had any clue why she said it), the dialogue fall flat without an understanding of the characters' feelings. One rogue negative review in the New Yorker seems to agree.
I'm aware that not every work of art has to speak to me specifically! And I do suspect this frustrating (to me) aspect of the film strongly resonated with a lot of people who don’t know why they do the things they do. ("Why did I date that guy for two years? Why did I want to be an account again? Why am I living here exactly?")
And that's a completely understandable affliction—I just don’t feel like watching a movie about it.
When I'm witnessing a story, I want to feel what characters feel, and I want to know the impulse behind their actions. I couldn't figure out any of the impulses behind the actions of these beautiful stylish characters in The Worst Person in the World, so I just felt annoyed and confused most of the time.
That's exactly how I feel about my goals when I don't know the feeling behind them: annoyed and confused with myself! I feel like I'm watching my own frustrating movie when I talk about my own goals, not aware of how it might feel—in my body, in my soul, in my jumpy mind—to experience that goal, to actually live it.
I believe it's Roxane Gay who said "Everyone wants to have written a book, but no one wants to write a book."
If your goal is to have written a book and you're not considering the feeling behind it, you might not end up ever doing it (I have ten years of experience with this).
But if your goal is simply to write and write and write and see where that delicious unpredictable adventure takes you...you'll be motivated to keep at it even if the end result isn't exactly what you expected.
The human brain is much more responsive to feeling than analysis (which is why we remember stories better than concepts, and we're more susceptible to anecdotes than arguments).
So, it would only make sense to me that our goals be driven by how we want to feel more than anything else. And if we work backwards from a feeling, then the exact outcome matters so much less—which takes a lot of pressure off.
I get stuck with this when I conflate feelings with external validation: "My goal is to be happy" can mean a lotttttt of things when we get so much wrong about what actually makes us happy (hint: external validation isn't it).
But if we are clearer about our internal happiness, the goals make themselves. I'm remembering a conversation with a middle-aged man I met in Brazil a few years ago, who wanted to bring more tranquility to his life; he started with his days. He knew that going to the beach brought him a strong sense of peace, so he decided to move closer to the water so he could begin every day with a short swim. In order to move closer to the beach, he'd need to make a bit more money—he calculated exactly how much. Now, he's a few blocks from the ocean and spends time there every day.
Note: If your goal is to live by the beach, ENJOY BEING AT THE BEACH; don't do it because it sounds nice.
As author David McCullough said in his commencement speech, "Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly."
Pinpointing our feeling motivations can get convoluted, so I might play a little unraveling game with myself (this is a verbatim dialogue from a few years ago)...
Goal: To be published in the New Yorker.
Why do you want to get published in the New Yorker?
Because it will validate my writing.
Okay, why do you want your writing to be validated?
Because then it will seem more important.
Great, how will that feel?
Like I’m important.
Hm okay, but “important” isn’t actually a feeling…can we think of a different way to say that?
I want to feel engaged with others through my work.
Can’t you do that through, say, an email?
Sure but if my writing gets in the New Yorker, then it matters.
Ah-ha! So “mattering” is crucial for you.
And what's the feeling of mattering?
Connected, held, safe, celebrated, loved, special.
Those are all nice words: What are some things that make you feel that way?
Writing in general makes me feel connected and safe; I feel most like myself when I’m writing.
Wonderful, okay, so you value 'feeling like yourself.'
Would getting into the New Yorker make you feel more like yourself?
Not really, but it would lead to a lot of other opportunities to write, and that makes me feel like myself.
So you want to be published so that you can...write more?
You know you can just write any time you want?
Why don't you write every single day? And if your writing is published ANYWHERE, that's a fun and exciting byproduct, but you won't be so attached that you might quit if you don't reach your specific goal. Your writing will guide you, rather than you guiding it.
Okay okay, Highest Self, easier said than done, but this dialogue led to what would ultimately result in my first book. Sometimes the Highest Self has some wise tricks up their sleeve.
The “Life is your own party; arrive whenever you want” approach is a great reminder of this: feeling our way through resolutions makes 10000x more sense than creating goals based on concepts that might fit within a logical framework (or someone else's metric of success) but not within our emotional topography.
A lot of us are trying to upgrade ourselves to win the attention of someone we wouldn’t want to be, or get jobs that we know will eventually burn us out. We’re trying to fit in crowds of people we don’t even like that much, or dreaming of living in cities that stress us out.
I hold the policy that the true New Year happens in springtime. So, in the Mari household, New Year's resolutions can be made and changed and altered midway through springtime (or a southern hemisphere autumn, which also makes more sense as a symbolic new year!). In that spirit, I invite you to join me in rewriting some goals—ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING!