“I didn’t just fall off the wagon,” she wrote in the January issue. “I let the wagon fall on me.”
Ms. Winfrey is hardly alone — nor is she alone in her vow to set off on (another) road to self-improvement in 2009. But if she succeeds she will be one of the few people to make good on what is essentially a New Year’s resolution.
“Most of us think that we can change our lives if we just summon the willpower and try even harder this time around,” said Alan Deutschman, the former executive director of Unboundary, a firm that counsels corporations on how to navigate change, and the author of “Change or Die,” a book that asserts that even though most people have the ability to change, they rarely do. “It’s exceptionally hard to make life changes,” Mr. Deutschman said, “and our efforts are usually doomed to failure when we try to do it on our own.”
In a season of change, in a year of change, most people who embark on a journey of self-renewal can expect anything but. Research shows that about 80 percent of people who make resolutions on Jan. 1 fall off the wagon by Valentine’s Day, according to Marti Hope Gonzales, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.
Such revelations will hardly come as a surprise to the repeat offenders and recidivists — that is, most of us — who year after year make, and break, the same resolutions.
Take Christie Griffin, 27, a Web editor in New York whose annual January resolve to learn to cook invariably fades by spring. “I’m pretty sure that the guys I meet aren’t intrigued by me when they find out that I survive almost solely on Honey Bunches of Oats,” she wrote in an e-mail message.
Hilary McHone, a photographer who recently moved to car-friendly South Pasadena, Calif., from New York has been unable to make good on her longstanding New Year’s resolution to get a driver’s license. Ms. McHone, 35, said she had been putting it off since botching a driving test as a teenager. “When my niece and nephew were young, I joked that I’d at the very least get my license before they did,” Ms. McHone wrote in an e-mail message. “Well, they’re now 21 and 19 and have had their licenses for several years now.”
“I have another nephew who is 4,” she added. “I am determined to get that license before he turns 16.”
These women may joke about their broken resolutions, but to suggest that most people will never change, no matter how much they want to, seems almost, well, un-American. After all, this is a country born of change (revolution), and our most cherished historical archetypes (the Pilgrims, the pioneers, the rags-to-riches entrepreneurs) are parables of reinvention. Bookstore shelves are swollen with the latest self-help books, and life-change gurus like Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil and, yes, Oprah are pop-culture icons.
But the numbers tell a different story.
Dr. Edward D. Miller, the dean of the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said more than 70 percent of coronary bypass patients revert to unhealthy habits within two years of their operation. Dr. Dean Ornish, the cardiologist and diet author, frequently cites a conclusion by a panel of nutritional experts convened in 1992 by the National Institutes of Health that two-thirds of dieters gain back any lost weight within a year.
The difficulty of changing may have evolutionary origins, said Marion Kramer Jacobs, a clinical psychologist in Laguna Beach, Calif., and author of “Take-Charge Living: How to Recast Your Role in Life ... One Scene at a Time.”
If one believes that human beings are social animals, our hierarchies within families, governments and businesses depend on people who know their roles and perform them dutifully.
“We’re hard-wired not to change quickly,” Dr. Jacobs said. “Think of what chaos would ensue if you could snap your finger and change instantly tomorrow. You would be one person today, someone else tomorrow.”
This excuse might come as cold comfort to Caroline Leavitt, a novelist in Hoboken, N.J. For five straight years, Ms. Leavitt broke her New Year’s resolution to stop biting her nails. “I went to a nail salon and had fake nails put on, I bit those,” she said. “I tried Lee press-on nails, I bit those off. I tried the stuff where you paint on nails, I bit those off. I even tried psychological stuff — ‘If I bite my nails, terrible stuff is going to happen to me, I’m not going to sell my novel.’ Nothing worked.”
In the end, Ms. Leavitt said, she overcame her habit after visiting a hypnotherapist. “The hypnosis didn’t work, either,” she added, “but something he said did: that I would always want to bite my nails, but the key was that I would want pretty nails more. He was right. I still want to chew my nails to the nubs, but I keep admiring my hands instead.”
Indeed, people like Ms. Leavitt often fail because they rely on the same strategies that have failed in the past, said Karin Schlanger, the director of the Brief Therapy Center at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., which works with people trying to break destructive behaviors.
But while change may be difficult, Ms. Schlanger and other psychotherapists, addiction counselors and life coaches said, it is not impossible.
Even Mr. Deutschman, who acknowledged the low success rates of most change regimens, said certain strategies were more likely to bring positive results. He boils his conclusions down to four steps.
The first, he said, is to “start with big changes, not small ones,” a strategy likely to yield immediate, noticeable benefits that inspire more positive change.
The second is to act like the kind of person you are trying to become; even if you hit the jogging trail with 30 pounds of flab, think of yourself as the jock you want to be. The third strategy is to “reframe” the situation. Recovering alcoholics, for example, have a higher chance of success if they reframe their sober life as a divorce from a tumultuous love affair with drinking, because they can then look back at their old life as a romantic adventure, rather than a sinkhole of regret.
The fourth, and crucial, strategy, he said, is based on the “don’t do it alone” advice that is the bedrock of 12-step programs.
But even these strategies are up against some bleak numbers when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. John C. Norcross, a clinical psychologist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania who has studied such resolutions, has found that after six months, only about 45 percent of the subjects managed to stick to their pledges.
Still, Dr. Norcross noted, 45 percent is a respectable success rate. “No one would expect one tennis lesson to make one a pro,” he said.
Or one gig to make you a rock star.
Aaron Agulnek, a lawyer in Sharon, Mass., spent much of 2008 wondering why he failed on his resolution to perform solo at a local open-mic night at least once, as a way to overcome stage fright. “Being in the profession I’m in, I thought that it would make sense to conquer that fear,” said Mr. Agulnek, 30. “I’ll tell you, there’s nothing better for that than standing on stage with your bad voice and an acoustic guitar.”
He is still grappling with why his resolution failed. “Psychologically, maybe I’m not ready,” Mr. Agulnek concluded.
But that conclusion may have been the problem, Dr. Jacobs said. Many resolutions fail, she said, because people assume they have to be ready for a change before they make it. In reality, she said, “the only thing that convinces the brain that it is O.K. to change is to see it change.” Mr. Agulnek’s mind, in other words, will only conclude that it is safe to perform on stage after it sees him survive the experience.
“Don’t listen to your feelings,” Dr. Jacobs said. “Feelings lie.”
But they also evolve, at least to judge by Oprah Winfrey’s experience. While she is back on the treadmill and off the carbs, Ms. Winfrey is talking about different objectives.
“My goal isn’t to be thin,” she wrote in O. “My goal is for my body to be the weight it can hold — to be strong and healthy and fit, to be itself.”
In concluding this, she may have stumbled across a more realistic form of change for 2009: self-acceptance.