How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions? Do you embrace a new year charged up with good intentions – ready to lose weight, start an exercise program and make your first million bucks? Or do you ignore the rolling over of the year?
Now, I must admit that I have never been much of a fan of New Year resolutions, probably because I realised I wasn’t very good at keeping them.
Similarly, I have never been a fan of goal setting or written plans, even though I’m reasonably productive and organised. There is just something really hard about trying to picture myself at some nebulous future moment.
I have an imagination, quite active at times as my husband often points out. But ask me where I see myself in 5 years’ time and I have no idea – at least not in concrete terms like I’m going to own a particular car, or travel to Italy on a particular date wearing a blue polka dotted dress and black patent shoes!
Which surprises me.
I used to think that this inability to plan made me flaky, unmotivated and indecisive.
How was I ever going to get anywhere in life if I couldn’t see it?
BUT I have just discovered one of the reasons why I feel this way, and it’s all due to a little book that leaped off the library shelf and into my hands.
The book is called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. He describes how the mind and imagination works and how it’s difficult to know now what will make us happy in the future.
I haven’t completed the whole book yet, but one section has struck a chord.
Daniel tells the story of a pygmy and an anthropologist; and no, they did not enter a bar! Rather, they emerged from the jungle, where the pygmy had lived his whole life – onto a vast, open plain.
As they gazed on the horizon, the pygmy pointed to a buffalo and asked the anthropologist, “What type of insect is that?”
The anthropologist replied, “It’s a buffalo”.
The pygmy stared at him in disbelief and laughed – saying that it simply was not possible.
Why did he react this way?
Well, the pigmy had lived his life in a jungle; he had never seen a wide open plain and his brain had never learned what we know… namely, that an object that is far away from us will appear small and less detailed than an object that is close to us.
He thought that because the object was small – it had to be an insect and could not possibly be a buffalo.
Daniel Gilbert goes on to explain:
“How do our brains know whether a small retinal image is being made by a small object that is nearby or a large object that is distant? Details, details, details! Our brains know that the surfaces of nearby objects afford fine-grained details that blur and blend as the object recedes into the distance, and thus they use the level of detail that we can see to estimate the distance between our eye and the object… Just as objects that are near to us in space appear to be more detailed than those that are far away, so do events that are near to us in time.”
If I asked you to remember what you had for dinner on this day a month ago, what would you say?
What if I asked you to describe what you ate for dinner last night? I bet you could tell me about last night’s meal in technicolour detail but last month’s meal would be a struggle.
Seeing in time is like seeing in space – the distant future or the past is always more vague or fuzzy than the immediate future or past; but while we understand this about objects in space, we don’t realise this about our imagination and goal setting.
What this means and why I get excited about this story is that I am not flaky or unmotivated about my life or goals. Rather, I just need to realise that my imagination cannot see all the details at a distance and that is okay.
What I can do is paint a fuzzy picture of where I might want to be and have faith that as I move towards it, I will be able to paint in the detail more vividly.
Personally, this is huge realisation, and it wouldn’t be possible without my recent experiences of successful planning and goal setting, but that is another story that I will tell next month.
Have a wonderful festive season and may the new year bring you all you wish for, be it fuzzy or in technicolour.