Are New Year’s Resolutions Un-Buddhist?

New Year's Resolution - Buddhism

I recently wrote how moving to a new country is a great way to reinvent your life. The start of the new year can also be a great opportunity for change and improvement. Getting better at life is something we should also be striving for, but I think western ideals of success and personal development are not always effective. Modern economies have brought us great abundance and opportunity, but we also seem to have much more anxiety and stress. I think we have a lot to learn from Buddhism when it comes to living a satisfying life.

The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

I’m sure all of you have come across numerous posts advising you on how to best make your resolutions stick this year. There’s no shortage of advice on how to improve your life. Resolutions used to be much simpler such as losing some weight before spring or quitting smoking, but in recent years the intensity seems to be increasing.

In the blog posts I came across, there are dreamlining and goal setting exercises encouraging us to vividly image our dream house, our dream car, beautiful spouse, all the possessions we will own, the power and status that come from our careers or business, mountains we will conquer and ultra-marathons we will finish. There are strategies to achieve more in business, in health, and virtually everything imaginable. The common thread between all of this advice is a presumed dissatisfaction with the present.

Despite our rich and abundant lives, most of us are still perennially unhappy with our current state.

Why Can’t We Just Be Happy?

Is the purpose of life to accumulate as much goods as possible? Is it to consume as much calories as possible? Get more stamps in our passports? Make more money? Get more social media followers? What else do you need to make your life perfect?

No matter how much we get, there will always be more that we don’t have. When will we be satisfied?

Even more distressing is that fact that, all too often, the most goal-oriented, talented and entrepreneurial people are hyper-effective at achieving more in largely socially useless businesses. What’s the point of going faster in the wrong direction?

My life is very good now. I’m doing exactly what I want everyday. New achievements aren’t going to bring any lasting satisfaction or fulfilment. In fact, I think goals are foolish. They get in the way of enjoying life now.

What Buddhism says about Wanting More

In Buddhism, this constant dissatisfaction or anxiety we face is known as dukkha. It’s the central concept of all Buddhist teachings. In very simple terms, dukkha is suffering due to wanting or desiring something more or different.

This suffering comes out of our own ignorance for not understanding, seeing or accepting the world and ourselves as they truly are. We can overcome this suffering by following the Noble Eightfold path of living with the: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

This is a gross over-simplification of Buddhism and I’m no expert, so please don’t take issue with the way I described it. This is meant to be a basic and concise introduction. It’s definitely worthing reading and thinking about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path on your own.

Forget Your New Year’s Resolutions

Now with all that Buddhist stuff out of the way, here is a alternative to your resolutions. Instead of striving for some way to “improve” your life, which you are most likely going to ignore in a few weeks anyway, try practicing being mindful and present in your daily activities. This will make you feel better about you life. I guarantee it. 🙂

Here is one simple exercise.

  • Pour some water from your tap and slowly drink it. (Presuming you live in a city with clean drinking water.)
  • Taste the water.
  • Feel it in your mouth and throat.
  • Focus your thinking on only the sensation of the water.
  • Concentrate on each instant as it happens and nothing more.
  • When your mind wanders, bring your attention back.

You can be mindful with all the simple, yet essential activities of your life. Practice will help you get better at living in the moment.  You can’t worry about your future or the past when your mind is fully present. It’s impossible. There is little reason to set goals for yourself if you are completely present in the moment.

Try something new and forget about your New Year’s resolutions this year. It doesn’t take any extra time to be mindful of the moment, so give it a try and let me know how it works for you. You might discover that you already have everything you need to live a satisfying life now.

What do you think?

Are there good lessons to learn from Buddhism? Do you feel that New Year’s Resolutions can be helpful? Please tell me what you think in the comments.

By the way, I love it when people disagree!

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

12 Responses to Are New Year’s Resolutions Un-Buddhist?

  1. keithk says:

    I did this just then while reading this and it seemed to work. I do believe that having some basic goals are important though e.g. fitness and savings goals, but otherwise you got to live in the moment or you are not living. The Asians are best at not living in the moment e.g. the Chinese savings rate is 50% whereas Americans are in debt.

    • John says:

      Thanks for the comment Keith.

      Goals are a destination. They are something you hope to arrive at in the future. I believe it’s far more satisfying to focus on the moment. For example, someone might have a goal to save $10,000 to buy a car. If they reach that goal, they’ll look for the next one. It never ends. I think it’s more powerful to minimize unnecessary expenses everyday.

      The same with fitness. You may have a goal to run a marathon, or lose 10 pounds. Wouldn’t it be better to enjoy running everyday rather than just struggling to force yourself to complete a marathon?

      Rather than chasing the next diet fad to lose wait, isn’t it better to eat healthy and exercise everyday?

      Ultimately, the end result might be exactly the same, but life is much more enriching if you enjoy the journey and are not dependent on the destination for your satisfaction.

  2. Joe Sadana says:

    I enjoyed the article a lot. I agree with you completely. We can learn a lot from Buddhism.
    God bless

  3. What I like about Buddhism is that it is NOT a religion. It is a philosophy of how to live life in spite of the hardships that being alive presents. Religion, on the other hand, creates even more hardships for humans, without exception. I prefer to choose a path for myself that requires as little conforming to cultural expectations and religious ideologies as possible. That’s where i find my freedom. Can I live an ethical life, one that fosters compassion and a spirit of responsibility without choosing a deity to worship blindly? I believe that I can and do. Am I open to defining happiness in a different way than my current culture defines it? Yes, I am and I do. In America, the acquisition of things is considered the manifestation of success and success determines the level of happiness that most Americans feel that they deserve. However, many westerners attempt to turn the practical teachings of Buddhism into a spiritual and religious movement. That I resist, because dogma, doctrine, even a god made in the image of man, as all gods are, do not align with my world view and certainly do not have the potential to make me happy.

    • John says:

      Thanks Teresa!

      I agree 100% so I don’t have much to respond.

      It’s sad that many of the western manifestations of buddhism, and even yoga or meditation, are so ego-centric. Deepak Chopra’s son did a great documentary mocking his father’s obsession with social media updates and his status on the best-seller’s lists. Even our gurus, seem to be missing the point.

  4. Jesus Garcia-Parrado says:

    Nice post John, I found this point of view interesting, have a great year 2014!!! 😉

  5. Scott says:

    Very good article helps as I move everything into storage leaving on world tour in 2 weeks.

    Thank You for taking your time to help others.

    Really liked the “largely socially useless businesses comment” this I’m keeping in mind as I look for my next business venture.


  6. James Taylor says:

    Hi John,

    Really enjoyed this blog post. Have felt the same about this disconnect with many of the New Year goal-setting pieces that have been written and living life along Buddhist lines.

    Thanks for the post and the reminder to be more mindful.


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