It’s one of our most human rituals. We stand back, we take stock of ourselves, we solemnly resolve to improve. And then we forget about the whole thing by mid-February.
Worst of all is the fact that we seem to know ahead of time that our chances of follow-through round to zero. Which makes the whole thing almost as much of a sham as Miss Cleo’s fortune telling.
In our defense, though, we do have a tendency to pile up hopeless expectations on ourselves. And we get started at roughly the worst time of year to embark on a self-improvement expedition. We fixate on that once-per-annum moment when last year and next year rub together to make fireworks explode, champagne pop and balls drop. When, you know, we’re distracted by all the metaphors.
In fact, there are probably about 364-1/3 better days each calendar to commence with upgrades than in the depths of winter when days are short and temps are low and champagne’s frothing all over the place.
But we do it. And the New Year’s Resolution praxis has such a burrowed-out roost in Cultura Americana that if we don’t actively participate we’ll be cajoled into at least promising to play along next year. Which is itself a resolution.
For those so wily as to get out of even this trap, our good friends at Nielsen report that 16% of Americans resolve to make no New Year’s Resolutions each year. Which is a downright sad Catch-22 that might even make Joseph Heller spill some champagne. And so there’s really no escape.
But that’s just because nobody asked FL to weigh in on this whole sham. So, despite not being asked, I’ll toss a little bubbly your way with some ideas for resolutions that you might just keep and which just happen to be resolutions that fly in the face of some of the most popular solemn oaths taken this time of year.
Without further delay…here goes (deep breath):
Honoring the letter of the New Year’s Resolutions law while completely evading the spirit of the whole thing, FL has, with great resolve, jimmied together an honorific list of resolutions that require no resoluteness whatsoever since they are, despite their honorable intent, dishonorably easy to honor. And which FL now presents to you.
Notwithstanding their “anti-ness,” these upside-down pledges offer real benefits and basically none of the effort associated with real resolutions. Which means they might actually make it past Valentine’s Day. And so they’re worth at least a sidelong glance in between flutes of champagne. Cheers!
1. Take Up Quitting Smoking
Only around 15% of American adults smoke these days. Which is a reflection of the fact that up to 85% of American adults are not complete idiots.
And while it’s true that quitting smoking is a pretty darn great way to improve your health and stop being an idiot, it doesn’t mean all the benefits should accrue only to Marlboro men and Doral gals.
That’s because the ~85% non-idiot Americans who don’t smoke might get real health benefits from doing the stuff that’s part and parcel of quitting these days – benefits which could even exceed those enjoyed by smokers who quit.
It turns out that the stuff puffers use to kick the butt – especially Nicorette and other quit-smoking nicotine gums and patches – might do wonders for short-term and long-term brain health in non-smokers.
First, the short-term benis: There’s a fascinating body of research showing that, even with very short-term usage, nicotine is a potent “brain booster” drug (and, indeed, the only brain-boosting drug that’s proven clinically to work).
Nicotine can help improve attention, mood, reaction time, and lead to better performance in mental and physical tasks. (For a fun overview of all this stuff, check out the book Smarter by journalist Dan Hurley. In addition to the nicotine science, Dan summarizes lots of other incredible research about how to enhance intelligence. I recommend the book as a breezy and compelling read about the latest research in brain health and getting, well, smarter.)
Smarter author Dan Hurley supplemented with nicotine patches during a period of “me-search” in which he tested the findings of clinical nicotine research on the brain and body. Consistent with the clinicians’ subjects, Dan experienced no addiction (nicotine, absent the other chemicals found in tobacco products, is less addictive than things like alcohol), no side effects except maybe a little weight loss (which is one often welcome effect of nicotine), and no hint of any withdrawal when he stopped his program. Oh, and in case you’re curious, nicotine by itself is not classified as a carcinogen. (These facts are according to research cited and explained in Smarter.)
All of which is pretty cool. Apply the patch or chew some Nicorette and – boom – you’re practically Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
But for as great as all that short-run stuff sounds, it really isn’t enough for me to care personally about nicotine. It’s the other, longer-term health benefits that light up my interest like a butane Zippo flicked at the end of a Camel.
It turns out that tobacco users are dramatically less likely to suffer from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia than non-users. (By some counts, Parkinson’s occurs over 300% more often in non-smokers than in smokers.) The reason is the nicotine.
Nicotine does something science-y to acetylcholine receptors and dopamine or something in the brain. Dan Hurley summarizes better than I could:
“…the nicotine molecule fits into receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine like a key into a lock. … Nicotinic receptors turn out to have the extraordinary capacity to moderate other families of receptors, quieting or amplifying their functioning. … The primary neurotransmitter that nicotine nudges is dopamine, which plays an important role in modulating attention, reward-seeking behaviors, drug addictions, and movement. And therein lies the answer to the mystery of why nicotine could prevent a movement disorder like Parkinson’s disease, due to its effects on dopamine.”
In addition to warding off Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s patients suffering early stages of the disease have shown significant improvements in memory and attention when supplementing with nicotine – that is, the drug can reverse some of the cognitive decline. Usage by the un-afflicted is associated with lower onset rates later in life. (The Michael J. Fox foundation is investigating nicotine, using the Novartis patch, as a tool to reduce Parkinson’s onset because of clinical evidence linking nicotine with enhanced brain function and reduced decline.)
Since I can think of pretty much nothing worse than suffering from diseases in the Parkinson’s-Alzheimer’s family of horrors, nicotine is on my mind. It’s not yet in my chewing gum or on my shoulder. But it’s on my mind. And maybe it’ll be on yours, too.
Now, I wouldn’t expect to get endorsement from medical professionals on supplementing with nicotine gums or patches to protect against cognitive decline. (Blogging bros Physician on FIRE and Smart Money M.D. probably are grinding their teeth into pearly enamel dust as they read this. Maybe pop a piece of Nicorette to mellow out, guys?) And I’m not a medical professional or even a medical enthusiast, really, so don’t go blowing out your jaw muscles chomping on nicotine rubbers and then blame me for your throat cancer and chemical breath.
But the science behind nicotine is pretty compelling (more good reading can be found here, written by Dan Hurley, in Discover magazine), and much of the popular and medical aversion to nicotine may be nothing more than guilt by association with tobacco:
“…nicotine gets a bad rap with the public because of its relationship with tobacco and addiction. In smoking, it’s the bevy of chemicals in a cigarette and the process of smoking that can cause cancers, not the nicotine itself.”
The field, however, is far from settled. More research into nicotine and brain health continues to be done. And, as with any emerging field of inquiry, certain findings are contradictory or unclear. There also remain concerns about the possibility of nicotine side-effects, many of which continue to be mentioned in the latest studies and press even as the connection between nicotine itself and certain side-effects become weakened by newer research.
So, rather than taking up nicotine in 2017, it’s something you might resolve to taking up watching – the latest findings about nicotine, that is. Oh, and if you happen to be a smoker, you should definitely quit. Don’t be an idiot.
2. Get Less Sleep
“What?!” you say. “Get less sleep, FL? But I’m tired enough as it is!”
Right. Don’t worry your sleepy head. FL’s a big proponent of getting enough down time. And lots of us groggy Americans could use lots more z’s in our routine. The problem’s not something we should just roll over and ignore either. According to the good folks at RAND, insufficient sack time costs the U.S. economy a cool $411 billion. Each year.
Now, if we divide that sum equally among all 310 million or so Americans, each of us is around $1,325 poorer every New Year because we don’t spend enough time on the Serta.
So why’s FL telling you to get less sleep? Well, let me modify it: Resolve to get more sleep in less time. How ‘bout that?
A popular yogic practice known as Yoga Nidra is a kind of deep meditation that’s intended to enable the brain to effectively “sleep” in a semi-conscious state. And it’s supposed to provide as much as 6x sleep-bang for the time-buck. Practitioners claim 20 minutes of Yoga Nidra can replace up to 2 hours of time drooling on your pillow.
The basic Yoga Nidra practice involves lying down and breathing deeply while relaxing. Then, once relaxed, you focus your attention on, say, your right foot, thinking of relaxing it. Then you move to your right knee. And so on. You cycle through the whole body, scanning it piece by piece. You’re then supposed to become mindful of your breath and other sensations, while continuing to relax. And you do it for around 20 minutes and you’re done. Good as new. (Here’s a slightly better how-to.)
It’s the kind of claim that makes you sit up from your sleep-deprived stupor and take notice.
But before you get too alert, take further notice that lots of the most exuberant research into Yoga Nidra comes from India, and it’s a little hard to tease out the sort of cultural auspices bias that could prevail in those studies. The whole yoga thing seems, after all, to be an important part of the spiritual fabric of Indian culture, and so it’d maybe be unseemly to find out the practice doesn’t do anything if you’re an Indian researcher. So I’ll remain agnostic about those studies – they suggest real benefits to Yoga Nidra, but they might also be less reliable than we’d hope.
Nevertheless, the uniformed and pleated brass at Walter Reed Army Hospital determined Yoga Nidra was interesting enough to develop a protocol for testing its efficacy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in military personnel. A pilot study there showed results promising enough to provoke a recommendation for a full trial. Participants reported improved relaxation and feeling more rested, which is consistent with the practice’s aim of activating the body’s parasympathetic system. And which is particularly important for PTSD patients since their distress may be linked to this system.
If it’s good enough for military PTSD patients to say things like: “I always have a really good day after the sessions,” then 20 minutes of Yoga Nidra when we’re feeling tired might be something others of us could consider to supercharge our sleep.
So, maybe don’t resolve to get less sleep just yet. But if you happen to be a couple hours short, Yoga Nidra (rather than, say, Starbucks and Nicorette) may be just what the doctor ordered.
3. Pay Less Attention To Your Money
“FL, this is a finance and economics blog, you chain-patching, yoga-sleeping resolution junkie,” you say. “And you’re telling us to pay less attention to our money?!?!”
That’s exactly what I’m telling you. In the short run, that is.
Morningstar famously publishes its “Mind the Gap” series of studies every so often that detail the difference between fund returns and returns of the investors in those funds. The two return rates aren’t the same because of the fact that investors add and subtract money to their fund accounts not all at once, but over time.
And the evidence suggests investors add more money when they perceive markets are poised to rise, and subtract more money when they perceive markets are ready to fall. And they’re pretty much always wrong. And so their returns lag the indexes. By like a lot. And it’s all very sad.
So what’s a Luchador to do?
Pretty much stop looking at your accounts every few days. Instead, make reasonable and time-tested allocation decisions, sit back and let mother market and father time do their biz all over your sweet, sultry dollars. Which is to say: Stop peeping, you creep.
And this resolution is one old FL fully endorses. You don’t even need your brain amped up by nicotine or smoothed out by a hit of Yoga Nidra to understand the benefits of just staying invested.
So, to summarize: 1) Just keep your money in the markets and stop scratching at it like you’ve got withdrawal symptoms; 2) If you don’t have 2 hours for more sleep, maybe you can try to swing 20 minutes for synthetic sleep; and 3) Keep an eye out for more research on nicotine and brain health – even if it’s a little premature to start patching and chewing, there might come a time when even an authentic shaman like Miss Cleo would tell you your future’s brighter with a little Nicorette.
Feeling resolute? Well, even if you’re not, let’s raise a glass of the sparkly stuff to the health, wealth and happiness of you and your families in 2017.
I hope outgoing 2016 has been a stellar year for all you Luchadores, and I wish you an even better 2017…to your healthiest, wealthiest, happiest and most unpresidented year yet. Thanks FL!
Luchadores, what are your resolutions for 2017? Drop a holla with the resolutions you’re making this year!