Are Resolutions About Resolve?

“Anywhere in the world that Jews have never lived,” Harav Yaakov Weinberg once asserted in a public lecture, “there exists practically no morality whatsoever. Whatever morality the world has, it is only what they absorbed through their exposure to the Jewish People.” So it’s safe to posit that the concept of “new year’s resolutions” is a derivative of the Yamim Nora’im process of teshuvah, of which kabbalah al haasid — accepting upon ourselves concrete undertakings to cement that process — features as a primary component.

Anyone who takes kabbalos seriously, and even those who don’t, cannot help but notice how often we find ourselves somehow failing to follow through with our kabbalos. This conundrum has reached the general population, enough for there to be some research on the topic, and a prominent Newsweek piece showcasing the findings. Self-control, according to a prominent school of thought in social psychology, is a “muscle” that fatigues with use. Some scientists even believe that self-control is directly linked to blood-sugar levels. An act of self-control uses up some of the blood-sugar. The organism called you now has a depleted level of blood-sugar[1]. Accordingly, it will be that much more difficult to succeed in subsequent challenges that demand self-control, until you recharge. The bright side is that all you need to do is consume something loaded with sugar! That might not be too helpful, though, if the self-control which is called for is to refrain from consuming unhealthy foodstuffs.

But don’t get too discouraged. A different group of researchers decided to look at this phenomenon — that is, that successful self-control seems to be linked to blood-sugar levels — from a different angle. And their conclusions are quite fascinating. This latter group of science-minded folk posited that the glucose (fancy word for sugar) effect is a) counter-active rather than causative, and b) neural rather than metabolic. Translating that into layman’s terms: if you just swish around a sugary drink in your mouth, you can refresh your self-control muscle. Just in case you didn’t quite catch that: even if you don’t swallow any of that sugar — and all you did is swish it around in your mouth — you can garner the positive effect of a self-control boost. But, it is still only the real thing. Honest to goodness sugar. Artificial sweeteners will just not do[2]. Of course, whether or not such an activity would fall under the rubric of bal tashchis is a fascinating question, with significant ramifications in terms of potentially barring us frum Yidden from taking advantage of this fascinating trick. Although the question of how helpful a Coca-Cola mouthwash could be for someone whose self-control is urgently needed to stop him from doing things like drinking Coca-Cola, is still a general point to ponder, even putting all halachic considerations aside.

What does seem to be in agreement, though, at least from a scientific perspective, is the fact that relying on sheer willpower alone is likely the reason why so many people fail at following through with their resolutions. Of course, we’ve all heard of stories of heroic individuals who did things like quitting smoking cold turkey — despite having smoked a pack a day for two decades — or giving up drinking coffee at the doctor’s advice. Even though the individual had been drinking 12 cups a day for years! Are there people out there who somehow manage to plow through with only the force of their internal self-control? Perhaps. But for the rest of us normal human beings, it seems to be ill-advised.

As it turns out, there is a source in the Torah (actually, multiple sources, but we’ll stick with one for now), that predates this modern field of inquiry by quite a few years. The Ramchal is not the one who innovated it, but if not for his Mesillas Yesharim, it’s unlikely that many of us would have picked up on it. He highlights the statement of Chazal, “One must always be crafty regarding the attainment of yiras Shamayim” (Brachos 17). Since, elaborates the Ramchal, we are prone to a host of ill-advised characteristics and behaviors, we need to employ clever tactics that help us move in the right direction.

The transition from 2016 to 2017 ought not carry more significance for us other than being aware that we need to take care of our taxes and date our checks properly. But, if the reverberations of our morality are being bounced back at us, there is no reason why we can’t take the opportunity to remember that we concluded Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur less than three months ago, and, if we haven’t managed to yet, figure out some tricks that can help us do what we really want and ought to be doing.

[1]. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2007

[2]. Hagger, Sweet Taster of Success, 2013

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