A Better Time For Resolutions

By Dawn Williams, Senior News Associate Publisher

The grief of a mother was the explanation ancient Greeks created to explain the winter season. Demeter, goddess of the earth, was the mother of Persephone. When her daughter was captured and taken to the Underworld its god, Hades, Demeter was sick with worry and rage. Crops withered and died and the land became cold and barren. Finally, Zeus stepped in and demanded the return of Persephone. Sneaky Hades slipped Persephone a pomegranate seed, the food of the dead, which destined her to return to the Underworld for part of each year. Demeter’s grief for her absent daughter brings winter; Persephone’s rising erased her mother’s grief and brought the beginning of spring. (Paraphrased from the Homeric Hymns, circa 7th century BCE)

Of course, we now have science to explain the changing seasons, yet this myth also reflects the physiological changes we mortals experience at different times of the year. The shorter days increase melatonin production, making us more sleepy. The lack of sunlight also results in a decrease of vitamin D production, which is correlated with depression, fatigue, increased pain, and slower wound healing. Severe weather further inhibits our desire for normal levels of activity, including leaving the house, which affects our hormone levels. Some studies suggest that inclement weather also causes increased stress, which weakens our immune system and makes us more susceptible to illness. Even those who were never diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder feel these effects to some degree.

And yet we choose New Year’s Day, right in the middle of the dark of the year, as the time to correct bad habits, begin new ones, and change our lives for the better. Perhaps the thought of getting a fresh start helps us push through part of the winter season. But statistics show that of those who set resolutions on Jan. 1st, the vast majority have given up their resolve before January comes to a close.

Consider the amount of effort, willpower, and determination required to muster the discipline to change a habit. These skills are fueled by inner strength and commitment. You wouldn’t undertake a major task when you’re ill or enduring a challenging phase of life, so why do we think we can handle it when we are physiologically at our weakest?

March brings relief from the effects of winter. Somewhere around the equinox, I feel like a switch has been flipped back on. My energy returns along with my enthusiasm. Life seems more vivid, as if a veil has been removed from my eyes. I feel optimistic and creative, ready to pick up where I left off the previous autumn. I imagine Persephone emerging from deep within the earth, stretching after her long hiatus, and Demeter dancing with joy for her daughter’s return.

If you relate to that experience, perhaps the beginning of spring is a better time for resolutions. The energy, renewed perspective, and returning motivation you feel can be harnessed and directed toward making those changes you gave up on in January.

An obvious and popular resolution is physical health. Whether your goal is to lose weight, build strength, or simply to put healthier routines in place, the positive physical and psychological changes we experience in spring will support your efforts. In winter, we just don’t have the energy to suddenly jump into a fitness routine, but now, there’s nothing holding you back.

It’s also easier to get out and about once the intensity of winter subsides. Think about pursuing that activities and social events you enjoy and that keep you connected with others. Some of us tend to hibernate during the winter months, both to ensure our safety and to avoid the discomfort of winter travel. This isolation puts us at greater risk for depression and is correlated with higher levels of stress. Clubs, meetings, classes, even simple visits to the library or your favorite coffee shop are easy when all don’t have to bundle up, shovel yourself out, and deal with hazardous weather conditions to get there.

As our physiology returns to normal, so does our interest in pleasurable pursuits and our ability to think creatively and more clearly, and our increased energy makes it possible to engage in those pursuits. Immersion in hobbies and passions allows us to enter the transcendent mental state known as flow. Beyond being a pleasurable experience, flow increases our ability to learn, create, and improve performance. You know you’ve been in a flow state when you realize you’ve been at an activity for hours without awareness of the passing of time, and your focus has been entirely on your activity – no aches and pains, no distractions, as if you were outside time and space. It leaves you feeling confident, accomplished, and content.

Finally, the coming of spring allows you to enjoy time in nature again, something researchers found is correlated with lower levels of stress, greater satisfaction in life, and improved cognitive function and emotional regulation. From this place of strength, you are better able to initiate and stay committed to the changes your resolutions require.

I admit, of the three resolutions I made on Jan. 1st, only one of those goals is anywhere close to being met. My winter mentality is a constant battle between apathy and action, and there were a few times that I realized, at least in that moment, that I just didn’t care enough to fight the lethargy and lack of enthusiasm. Yes, I kept getting back on track, only to stumble time and again. But I can feel Persephone’s rise beginning, and with it, my determination to stay the course. If you gave up on your resolutions too, harness the power of spring to renew your commitment. No goal is impossible when you’re determined, but the right timing can make all the difference.