College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

A blog from Head of School Susanna A. Jones.

Susanna A. Jones

I got an email the other day from a student writing an article about New Year’s resolutions for The Scribbler. She wanted to know what my New Year’s resolutions were and I had to tell her that I’m not much of a New Year’s resolutions person. The new year starts for me in September with the opening of school. Plus, the research on how rarely people keep their resolutions – which corroborates with my own experience – makes me skeptical of the exercise. Research shows that the vast majority of people abandon their resolutions by sometime in February if not by the second Friday in January, known in some circles as Quitters Day.

That said, I’m always striving for ways to live a happier, more fulfilled life. For example, last week, I took part in a New York Times 7-day Happiness Challenge which focused on strengthening relationships because research shows that having strong relationships constitutes the most important determinant of happiness. The challenge began with a quiz about the state of one’s relationships and each day thereafter offered an activity, such as setting up an eight-minute phone call with someone you don’t talk to often or cultivating work friendships or writing a “living eulogy,” basically a thank you to someone who is important to you. Each of these activities, including the one encouraging you to engage in small talk with strangers, is based on research about how to cultivate relationships that will have a positive impact on your life (having a close work friend, for example, makes you more productive while also making work more enjoyable). While the quiz indicated that my relationships are in “tip-top shape,” I was glad that the challenge inspired me to set up a Zoom conversation with a high school friend I haven’t talked to in years (he’s a retired psychology professor – I debated whether to tell him about the challenge and decided not to; we had a great conversation – way longer than eight minutes – and agreed to connect again); to write a life thank you note to my godfather (who is in his nineties); and to set up a social meeting with two other heads of school. I know that each of these activities will engender positive emotions (as the note to my godfather did immediately – in addition to relief as this is something I have been meaning to do for awhile). I’ll be even better off if I can sustain some of these connections more robustly; setting relationship goals, creating specific times for connecting, and creating rituals all help us deepen our relationships. While I haven’t made any resolutions per se, as I think about leaving a work environment where I see multiple people everyday, I know it will be important to be intentional about cultivating relationships.

While I don’t tend to make resolutions, I do have experience successfully implementing new habits. Many years ago, I read that if you want to instill a new habit, you need to engage in the practice daily for 30 days. I had exercised regularly off and on for years and knew what a positive impact it had. I decided to try making daily exercise a habit and made myself exercise everyday for 30 days. It worked!  For more than 20 years, I have exercised everyday (except Christmas) since. I am a healthier, saner person for it. I share this because, if you really want to keep your resolutions, I recommend the discipline of doing (or not doing) whatever your resolution is for 30 days. If you skip a day, you have to start over. Thirty days is actually a very short period out of our entire lives – you can do it.

Having set out to do or not do whatever your resolution is, you also want to make it as easy as possible. Lay out your exercise clothes the night before (some people even recommend sleeping them which seems a little extreme to me). I always exercise in the morning so it’s done and I don’t spend the day coming up with excuses not to. Many people also find that recruiting a friend as an exercise buddy helps hold you accountable. This New York Times article has some other great suggestions to motivate you to exercise, such as not considering it exercise but something else enjoyable. I keep my gratitude journal on my bedside table where I see it every night when I get into bed; that way, I don’t forget to write in it. Whatever you’re trying to do, remove as many obstacles to achievement as possible.  

Whether you’re trying to improve your mental health or just adopting generally healthy resolutions, spending time outside comes up repeatedly as a positive impactor. Again, my own experience proves the power of time spent outdoors. During covid, I started walking our dogs around campus every night before dinner. It calmed my mind and energized me for the evening. I try not to take my phone and to focus on nature like the stream gurgling over the rocks, the blossoms in spring or the fall foliage, the moon, the light values – whatever nature has to offer. Although my schedule sometimes keeps me from this ritual, whenever I do take these evening walks, I feel so much better.  

Some other resources I found that you might enjoy includes a piece by Tish Harrison Warren, a New York Times columnist and Anglican priest. I almost always find what she writes thought-provoking and this column, “Forget the Beach Bod. Try These Soul Resolutions Instead.” was no exception. Warren crowd-sourced suggestions for resolutions and, given her profession, most have to do with practicing faith in some way. I especially appreciated “Gather, feast and rest with others” from pastor Rich Villodas, encouraging us to “feast” more often, intentionally spending time with others in “unhurried conversation, good drink and play,” a prescription that would also nurture relationships. For me, Warren’s soul resolutions fall into the aspirational category, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth considering as a great essay on Samuel Johnson’s resolution-making reminds us.  

For more inspiration, you might want to explore the NPR podcast, Life Kit, which I discovered doing this research. Their New Year’s resolutions episode focuses on making your life better.  As host Marielle Segarra offers, instead of “denying ourselves things and achieving some lofty goal” what if “we came up with resolutions that helped us live happier or more fulfilling lives.”  I’m all for this approach (plus, this episode includes suggestions from Holton alumna Daniela Zalcman ’05). They even have a handy resolution planner.  

This idea of focusing on living a happier life and not trying to transform yourself appeals to me, probably because it seems to have much more potential for success. As Oliver Burkeman wisely observes in an interview in The Atlantic:

I do think that in the culture of New Year’s resolutions, there’s a really heavy dose of perfectionism—a sense in which it’s all about starting completely afresh and being completely perfect in some area of life from this day forward. I don’t think fresh starts like that are actually possible, and I don’t think aiming to make them is the healthiest way to change.

Instead, he encourages us to avoid the notion that “you need to make some big change in order to be a minimally acceptable, worthwhile person.” When we think that way, it “doesn’t leave any room for the thought that maybe you’re more okay than you thought. … Maybe reconciling yourself to certain ways that you are is a more powerful thing.”

As we begin 2023, instead of focusing on New Year’s resolutions, I would encourage us to make a habit of looking for ways to be kind to ourselves and to prioritize activities that will make us happier and healthier. Such habits will surely reap abundant rewards.