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Looking Back, Looking Forward

In this column I discuss common resolutions many of us make at the beginning of the New Year and a method to review the past year. I will share some of my personal experiences making resolutions or setting goals. This column will end with a discussion of strategies for personal growth that can also help you meet resolutions or goals for change.  


We make New Year’s resolutions or set goals as a way to improve ourselves and the quality of our lives. These are usually well intentioned, even though we often fail to sustain many of the changes we plan to make. The most common resolutions or goals relate to:


  • Health—eat healthier, lose weight, follow a diet, exercise regularly, stop tobacco use or cut down or stop alcohol use
  • Lifestyle or habits—spend less money, reduce debt, save or invest more money, travel or plan a vacation, get organized, stop putting things off, watch less TV or spend less time on the Internet
  • Education or work/career—go to school, find a new job, work less hours, complete a specific work project or task or learn something new
  • Interpersonal—spend more time with family or friends, make new friends, help others or even fall in love
  • Mental health—manage stress, reduce anger, improve mental health, think less negative or more positive
  • Spirituality—pray, get involved in church or spiritual activities or get closer to God


If you review lists of resolutions made each year—and you can Google these on the Internet to find many lists—you will find that there are fewer resolutions related to mental health or spirituality. This is interesting given that our emotional and spiritual health play a significant role in our physical health, relationships, and quality of our lives.  


There are apps on your computer, iPad, and smartphone related to many areas of change, which can help you track and focus on what you want to change. The bad news is the potential to allow one more technology product to take up your time and attention if you become too obsessed with it.   


Reviewing the Past Year


At the end of each year you can review and rate how things went in each major area of your life. Well-known psychologist Marty Seligman suggests that you rate the major areas of life on a scale of one to ten, one representing very bad and ten representing as good as it can get or perfect. The areas that he suggests we review in writing are love, profession or work, finances, play, friends, health, generativity (mentoring others), and overall. A review provides the opportunity to reflect upon your gifts and feel gratitude for blessings in your life as well as identify areas for improvement.   


I believe it is never too late to change—striving for improvement is good for us and for the world we all share. As I reflect on the past year, I feel good about how I loved and treated others, and what I accomplished relative to my resolutions or goals. I’ll never be satisfied with all areas of my life because I’m a seeker who is mostly satisfied, but always seeking more.  


Looking Forward to the Next Year


The goals I set in my 60s are more modest than ones I set in the past. In my younger years, I was more ambitious in what I wanted to achieve in different areas of my life, which was reflected in new resolutions or goals for the year. My priority goals related to professional growth and accomplishments, and providing meaningful experiences and a comfortable living for my family.  


My goals for this upcoming year are to nurture love, mentor others, focus on personal growth and balanced living, and contribute to a legacy that I hope will show my strong passion for making a difference by helping people with problems get interested in recovery and change their lives. The following are my goals and a few reflections.


Keep Love a High Priority


I do this by spending time and giving attention, support, and help to those I love. I must not only nurture my loving relationships, but savor them. This means accepting those I love with their faults and limitations, because their role in life is not to live up to my standards or expectations. The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of love and acceptance of others, which are the foundations of a satisfying life. There is nothing as sweet as love that is reciprocal between two people who care deeply for each other and show this in their actions, not just their words.  Spending time with loved ones, doing for others, providing meaningful experiences, and saying “I love you” keep love a high priority in our lives.


Mentor Young People in my Personal Life


I love to influence family members and their friends in positive ways by getting them to think or do things differently. When others learn something from me, I feel great, especially if they learn something that improves their lives or that of others. I have many satisfying discussions about issues of concern to young people such as school, career, parenthood, relationships, emotional chaos, money management and investments, goals, problems or other issues of interest.


Mentor Young Professionals


Giving back is one of my greatest satisfactions as a seasoned professional. I especially like stimulating young professionals’ interest in learning to become better at what they do, tapping into their creativity and individual strengths and talents or providing opportunities to grow in their career. I work with medical students, psychiatric residents, other students, and clinicians to help them learn and become more competent clinicians. It is gratifying to see specific individuals blossom in their career knowing that I made a difference, no matter how small. For example, I have several young colleagues that I am mentoring on teaching and writing. Seeing their progress is exciting and rewarding; so is seeing their ambitions and willingness to put the work in to achieve something in their work.


Maintain Reasonable Health and Habits


This means I want to stay within a weight range, keep physically active, follow a reasonable diet, and get enough rest. I am erratic with regular workouts, but am moderately successful in staying in decent shape because I walk a lot. Regular exercise is an area that I need to improve and become more disciplined. Even after all these years, my workout habits ebb and flow.  


Stay Balanced and Focused on what is Important in Life


Love, relationships, health, creativity, and spirituality are the important values in my life. Yet I sometimes lose perspective and focus too much on the wrong things in life. I sometimes revisit the need for balance because the demands placed on me are endless. Modern day life is hectic and sometimes too stimulating, which I believe contributes to imbalance. Reducing time spent with technology is one way to simplify and be more balanced.


Be a Good Christian and Live a Decent Life


This means focusing more on positive values to a difference in the lives of others rather than focusing on personal pleasure. I have lapses in this area and at times my spirituality receives less attention that it should. Religion is a part of my spirituality and I need to regularly pray and attend services. I also need to be grateful for the gifts I have in life. I sometimes get into spiritual funks, but usually get myself out them. We all need to have meaning in life, which can help us sustain an interest in the world and make it a better place.


Maintain My Creative Spark


I love to write and produce materials that help others with problems. I continue get a thrill out of reaching people who have problems with addiction, mental illness, problems in relationships or managing their emotions or moods. But there are times when I have to deal with my creativity ebbing and flowing. Sometimes my creativity is high and drives me, and I then write or edit a lot.  My writing flows and I get lost in the creative process, enjoying it as it unfolds and trusting my style of working. Other times, I flounder and my creativity lays dormant or does not flow. While I work best when I have internal motivation that I refer to as my “spark,” I accept that I cannot always have the spark I need to forge ahead with creative projects. This is what some psychologists refer to as “flow.”      


Nurture Curiosity and the Love of Learning


My curiosity grows as I get older. I have an extensive “wish list” of books on Amazon. I like learning about history, literature, psychology, human behavior, medicine, sports, and other areas. I regularly read newspapers and e-publications, view or listen to talks or lectures on diverse subjects on Internet sites such as TED (Technology, Education, Design), the Greater Good Science Center, and others. I am watching Ken Burns’ outstanding series about World War II on Netflix, where I have found many incredible documentaries on every subject imaginable, especially nature. And, I still savor the experience of browsing through a bookstore looking at random books on many subjects.


Manage Money Wisely


I grew up in a poor family and learned the hard way to spend wisely, limit debt, save, and invest for the future. I buy used cars and clothes and other things I need on sale. I donate to several organizations and help others in need. I save and invest regularly and pay extra on my home mortgage. As I get closer to retirement, I am more conservative in my investments, but am not afraid to take risks and lose money. I have learned that working for a living can lead to a comfortable lifestyle, but I need to save and invest money if I am to take care of myself in my older years.


Suggestions to Consider for Personal Growth to Fulfill your Resolutions


Small, measurable goals like losing a specific amount of weight (but only if this is realistic), saving a designated amount of money, finishing school or job training, and working out a specific number of days per week are helpful for some people. Sometimes “less is more” and it is better to have smaller, more manageable resolutions or goals than more ambitious ones.


In thinking about making resolutions to change something about yourself or your life, I suggest the following:


  1. Focus on meaningful experiences. Most resolutions tends to focus on a result (i.e., do or achieve something specific). However, you can focus on new or expanded “experiences” to promote personal growth and enrich your relationships and life.
  2. Build on your strengths and interests. We all have strengths, talents, and areas of creativity or competence. Know what yours are, and choose one or two to build or expand upon.
  3. Build, improve, and sustain important relationships. Love and connection with others are important needs. You can have all the success in the world—at work, business, creative endeavors, and other areas—but if you are not well connected with others you are likely to feel a void or have less meaning in your life. Giving time and attention to others is one of the keys to successful relationships.
  4. Do something to make a difference in the world. Increase kind or grateful behaviors, forgive someone you have held a grudge towards, do for others or do something for the environment.   
  5. Reduce negativity in your behavior, habits, thinking, and comments about or towards others. Being too negative can drag you or others down. Make fewer negative comments.
  6. Increase positivity in your behavior, habits, thinking, and comments about or towards others. Be more positive in daily life, even if you have to force yourself to do so at first. Make more positive comments to others.
  7. Try something new or different. Learn a new hobby, gain a new avocation, learn something outside of your realm of comfort.  
  8. If you get in a funk, work yourself out of it. Motivation matters to change and achieve your resolutions. However, sustaining motivation to change is not always easy, so prepare to take actions to increase your motivation when it falters.  
  9. Embrace failure and do not expect all of your resolutions or goals to be met. You may do well in some areas, but not so well in others. Learn from your mistakes, accept your limitations, and as long as you are making progress, be satisfied with yourself. Remember, failure is one of our best teachers!


Web Resources and Suggested Readings for Personal Growth


  • Fresh Views
  • Mentor Coach
  • TED Talks
  • The Greater Good Science Center
  • Kashdan, T. B. (2010). Curious?: Discover the missing ingredient for a fulfilling life. New York, NY: Harper. 
  • Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Peterson, C. (2012). Pursuing the good life: 100 reflections on positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.