It’s that time of year again. Where we all think about our vices and misfortunes over the past 12 months, and look to a new year as a time to better ourselves. If you’re looking for ways you can work on some self-improvement, here are a few ideas inspired by philosophical thought that can be applied now and at any time of the year. After all, why should resolutions just be for January?
1. Self-Discipline – It’s no surprise that philosophical work takes a lot of effort to think through, write, debate, and construct arguments. Descartes proved this in his Meditations, even writing a “Letter of Dedication” prefacing his work. Like so many other philosophers, Descartes’ labour, time, and sheer willpower is an example of being rewarded if you work hard at something and persevere. Through the meditations, he managed to create one of the most famous and renowned philosophical works ever written and coined the ever popular cogito ergo sum, or “I think therefore I am” that many later writers challenged and repurposed.
Setting yourself targets will always take a certain amount of diligence and work to achieve them, that’s what makes them the objects of ambition! In order to set any New Years resolutions, you first need to motivate yourself and stay on track. And who knows, maybe your hard work will be something great to yourself and others in the future!
2. Kant’s Hypothetical Imperative – Kant argued that unlike the unconditional categorical imperative of things we must do, the hypothetical imperative considers our own will, and that willing is more than just desiring, so we can actively pursue a goal we want to achieve. All non-moral imperatives I choose to will are, as Kant called, “problematic” in that they are not necessary for some end. The exception to this is simply our own happiness. Being happy is something we as humans necessarily pursue as part of our nature. He called this an “assertoric” imperative, and instead of giving ourselves strict instructions to reach this we have “counsels of prudence” which try to guide us to the indeterminate happiness we desire (within our own understanding of the concept).
Taking this idea rather loosely as a resolution for self-improvement, I hope to give myself more definition for goals I would like to achieve, particularly those which contribute to a sense of success. By using this structure for achievements alongside a reminder to myself of my own will, and remembering that happiness is subjective and not defined by a fixed check list, I hope to understand a personal sense of happiness.
3. Patience – If there’s anything I’ve learned from philosophy is that it takes time and understanding to get to what you want to achieve. Tackling something new is likely to seem impossible at first, that’s just a part of the learning process. I’ve always been one for getting easily frustrated when I can’t do something right away (RIP my career as a violinist), so moving forward I’m planning to stop beating myself up and know that with patience, it’ll happen in the end.
I hope, in the words of Take That, that having a little patience I can follow rationality more, and pay attention to that old “head over heart” dilemma. For example thinking before speaking is something philosophers have always needed to master in order to carefully express their views in debate. I’ll be trying to emulate that, and ironically, I’ll probably need a bit of patience in order to make that happen.
4. Schopenhauer’s Asceticism – Despite the association of asceticism with extreme isolation, willessness, and resignation, ascetic views also have an element which can be a tad more upbeat. Focussing on “composure and tranquility” to find enlightenment, and more simply meaning in life, these views mirror those found in various traditional beliefs.
Life is full of frustrations and troubles. Schopenhaur acknowledged this, and thought that asceticism can help to reduce frustrations by detaching oneself from some desires and indulgence in order to move away from the struggles of life, and into a more peaceful one.
The denial of all pleasures and joys would of course be counterintuitive to a life of serenity, and cause more grief than what is trying to be eliminated. With a more moderate outlook of asceticism, this paradox is resolved and we can instead consider relaxed ascetic views to encourage modesty and balance throughout life. In a world of many manifestations of greed and conflict, remembering to stay grounded and fair is always helpful. I’ll be aiming to be less materialistic and consider focussing on modern minimalist lifestyles to better appreciate what really gives life meaning.
5. Challenges – Although not specifically tied to any philosophical school of thought, I have always found philosophy to be challenging. Albeit intellectually, but this is something I hope to do more of in the coming months. To challenge oneself is to explore, accomplish, and overcome. A challenge can be getting out of your comfort zone, and to make a conscious effort to do so avoids stagnation and complacency, in whatever area of your life that might be, such as activities, socialising, intellect, whatever you want it to be!
6. Trial of Socrates – As explained by Alain de Botton in The Consolations of Philosophy, Socrates was put on trial and later convicted of impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth in Athens. This accusation came about as a result of his refusal to comply with the popular religious, political, and societal trends of the time. The story is recalled as a consolation for unpopularity. The unwavering beliefs of Socrates ultimately led to his death, but he knew staying true to himself was more important than accepting what he knew was more popular, but what he did not agree with. Following his death there was redemption. His reputation was restored when people saw his actions as sacrifice, and respect for the martyred philosopher grew as people began to understand his point of view.
The story of Socrates and his death is an extreme example demonstrating the importance of staying faithful to your own beliefs, and in a broader way, to yourself. Any doubts about your abilities, your beliefs, your happiness can and will be overcome, because as George Michael said, you’ve gotta have faith. You are in control of more than you think, especially your future, and belief in yourself will help overcome feeling like you’re as disliked as a loudmouth philosopher on trial in ancient Greece.
7. Competitive Comparison – This is possibly the most important resolution I’ll be trying to make, and have been trying to make for a while. Let’s just say it’s a tough nut to crack and is still a work in progress! A friend once wrote a well-timed Tweet near the end of my final year of studies that went something like this:
“don’t let the achievements of others diminish your own accomplishments”
Honestly it’s probably the most useful sentence I can remind myself of. We all do it. That one person (or if you’re a stressball like me, many people) who seems to have their life together, you can’t help think “if only that was me!”. Let’s stop that shall we? It’s not fair on anyway, least of all ourselves. Why do we feel the need to put ourselves down when others succeed? Jealousy is a strange emotion, but recognising it is the first step to beating it.
So I plan to follow in the footsteps of philosophers such as those mentioned throughout this post, because despite being challenged and knocked down, they still pursued their own goals. Maybe that was helped by not comparing themselves to others, maybe not. Either way, I like to take inspiration from Great Thinkers in my own way. Life itself is not a competition, and by spending too much time looking at other people feeling envious you’re forgetting to look at what positivity there is in your life.
Regardless of whether resolutions are for the start of a new chapter, or part of ongoing personal development, these ideas might help solidify those goals. What are your New Year’s resolutions? Are there any that you think could be included here? Whatever you’d like to achieve in the new year, here’s to happiness and success!