Have you ever thought that you might be getting your New Year resolutions completely the wrong way round? That is, the things you vow to do – lose weight, stop smoking, cut down on your drinking – are all the miserable things you’re trying to do all year long anyway. The things you should be resolving to do are all the fun things you keep meaning to take up but never get round to doing: visiting Prague, taking a hot air balloon ride, watching Citizen Kane.
Our lives are full of these unfulfilled experiences. How many times has a classic movie come up in conversation only for you to say ‘actually, I’ve never seen it – I really would like to’? The effort involved in doing so would be minimal. These days you don’t even have to order a DVD – the film will probably be on Netflix or Prime. All you need to do is set aside a couple of hours and open a bottle of wine. But do you ever manage that? Of course you don’t. That tedious thing called life keeps getting in the way.
But what if you’d made a vow to yourself last New Year’s Day that by the time next January comes round you’d have watched that movie? Come summer time your guilt will be kicking in. Guilt might seem a strange word to associate with pleasure, but it’s the same instinct that applies to your promises about weight and smoking and drinking. It’s something you’d said you’d do, and you haven’t. Only in this case, rectifying that failure will be a pleasure. Once you’ve made the tiny initial effort, it’ll all be about you enjoying yourself. As opposed to the massive, constant effort involved in dieting and the like.
Some ‘inverse resolutions’ will take more effort than blocking out an evening to slump in front of the telly. You might have talked for years about doing a bungee jump. Or going on a wine-tasting course. Or seeing the Mona Lisa, making your own bread, walking the Pennine Way. But whatever it is, write it down this festive season, stick it on the kitchen wall and promise yourself that by the end of 2019 you’ll have done it.
I first had this realisation with a girlfriend in my twenties. One New Year’s Eve we each made a list of half a dozen items, and vowed to do three of them (that gives you a bit more leeway). I can’t remember what all of mine were, but one was ‘do a parachute jump’. And do one I did. I bet you that had I not made that list, to this day I’d still be staying ‘I’d love to do parachute jump’.
The habit lasted for a few years. Parenthood knocked it on the head for a while, but in the last couple of years I’ve gone back to it. Some items are family things – for instance one of this year’s was ‘go on a safari’ – but there’s also been ‘kayaking on the Thames’ and ‘watching the boxing at York Hall in Bethnal Green’. Nothing major, but they’re lovely memories.
‘The thought that life could be better,’ sings Paul Simon in Train in the Distance, ‘is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.’ I think that’s the central truth of life, explaining pretty much everything we do from the day we leave the womb. It certainly explains why we sit there at Christmas vowing to lose weight – but we never stop to think that it applies the other way round. There are so many enjoyable things that would make our life better – not massively, just a tiny bit at a time – but we mutter something about ‘must do it one day’ and then just forget. If you resolve to do them, however, that instinct in your heart and your brain will do the rest. By this time next year you might not be a millionaire – but you will have watched Citizen Kane.