daniel akst

Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail: Q&A with Daniel Akst

February 2, 2011 at 11:57 am , by

Now that the first month of 2011 has trudged to a chilly close, it’s a good time to review those New Year’s resolutions that so many of us made with utmost sincerity and determination a scant four weeks ago. How did they manage to evaporate so quickly? I recently sat down to discuss this problem with my old friend Daniel Akst, whose new book We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess (Penguin Press), examines what he calls “the democratization of temptation” and why we have so much trouble resisting it.

LG: In We Have Met the Enemy, you say that the extraordinary abundance we enjoy today comes with a price—the need to self-regulate, since society is no longer doing it for us. Why is self-control so hard these days?

DA: In truth, self-control has always been hard, because we’re torn between short-term rewards, which exert the most power, and the much more abstract—yet ultimately greater—long-term rewards we can achieve if we can manage to keep our impulses in check.

LG: Still, in your book you look back in history and argue that self-control is exponentially harder now and the stakes are higher.

DA: Yes, that’s true. And that’s because, while human nature hasn’t changed, the landscape of temptation has. Not that long ago, all you had to spend in a store was the money in your pocket, and the store was probably closed on Sundays. Today, giant emporia are open 24/7, and in addition to the money in your pocket you have several pieces of plastic that enable you to get thousands of dollars in instant credit from banks you’ve never even visited. Similarly, a hankering for fried chicken once meant catching and killing a live chicken and then plucking and cooking it. Now, all it takes is a trip to the nearest KFC. And there’s no shortage of those: The number of fast-food outlets per capita grew more than fivefold from 1970 to 2004. Or look at gambling. In 1970 casinos were legal only in Nevada, and New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York were the only states with lotteries. Today every state but Utah and Hawaii has legalized casinos or lotteries or both. And the Internet entices gamblers at all hours with offshore “virtual” casinos.

Then, to complicate matters, our views about indulgence have also changed. Once upon a time you were supposed to defer gratification until you were dead, when you would be rewarded in the afterlife. That started to seem too long a wait for most of us, and over time our attitudes toward consumption, borrowing and fulfillment shifted. Read more