Medcalf: On rethinking the way we approach New Year goals

As the sun begins to set on the final days of December each year, I always hear a series of declarations.

There will be new things in our lives, people will say or post on social media. New jobs. New relationships. New bodies. New habits. New money. New locations. New homes and cars. New vacations. New cities. New friends. New existences, really.

For others, there is an emphasis on discarding any hindrance that held them back this year. "Don't settle" is their mantra.

I support all individual efforts toward improvement, especially when that improvement has a tangible impact on a person's health, psyche, well-being and community. Sometimes, you just have to go, change, move, seek or start fresh.

But I no longer believe in resolutions, only growth. Growth feels continuous and sustainable, while resolutions seem like term papers with firm deadlines. I always hated term papers.

Lost in the conversation about newness, however, are the elements of our current lives we might take for granted in our fight for something greater, better, more peaceful, more fulfilling and happier.

It's not as appealing to say we want to do more next year to support and connect with our friends or partners, rather than replace them. It's not as sexy to say that we want to thrive through the challenges in our current jobs in 2023 — instead of finding new gigs. And only a defeatist would decide against moving to a new city or state and choose to make a greater effort next year to bond with folks in their current communities, right?

But the New Year always seems to ask, "Why is everybody doing so much better than I am right now?" So the gyms fill up and the dating apps get downloaded again and the plans to finally relocate to the West Coast commence.

Jennifer Guttman, a New York-based clinical psychologist, warns against this annual shift in her Audible book, "Beyond Happiness."

She preaches "empowered self-concept" over searching for happiness, which fluctuates. She believes satisfaction is more important than any temporary sentiment.

"It's no accident I use the word 'satisfaction' and not 'happiness,'" she says in the book. "This is because our ideas about happiness are misguided."

Before writing the book, Guttman endured a series of hurdles in a challenging chapter of her life. She experienced a family tragedy, and she also fought with doctors to properly diagnose her son's heart condition. Then, she had to overcome her own medical obstacles.

That journey led her to encourage her clients to reach for "sustainable life satisfaction," which is "midway between excess and deficiency, between narcissism and neediness," she writes.

The premise is that life's obstacles and challenges, despite our ambitions, can perpetually and continuously drain our reservoirs of happiness if that happiness is rooted in the idea that our lives must always change or improve for us to obtain that feeling.

I believe some of the New Year's resolutions I hear and read stem from that philosophy.

But I will continue to love where I am, who I am and what I am today and build, or tear down when necessary, from there. Because I only have right now.

Three years ago, I lost a good friend, ESPN reporter Ed Aschoff, to cancer. He was healthy and vibrant and then, at 34, he was gone. He died on Christmas Eve in 2019, which was also his birthday.

At his funeral, we never talked about his professional strengths or his workout habits or his car or his house or his cash. We only talked about the way he made us all feel.

It was a reminder to focus on today and embrace today and enjoy today. I am no master at this. But I try to make sure my girls and my friends and those folks in my orbit know what they mean to me. I try to make time for them and connect with them.

After my friend died, I resolved then to no longer take anything for granted, which has helped me over the last three years.

Yes, there is always something better, brighter or greater to attain, it seems.

Sometimes, the joy is in front of you, though.

I also know that adding or subtracting does not always lead to happiness. I know a millionaire who wonders if his friends love him because of their relationships or because of his checkbook. I know single people who want partners. I know folks with partners who want something else. I know people with good jobs who wish they had better jobs. I know people who got the job they'd always desired only to realize it was never meant to provide the happiness they assumed it would offer. I know parents who want a break from their children. I know parents who wish they could go back and enjoy their children's youth.

Our humanity never offers completion. Something is always missing or absent or too distant to capture. Our resolutions often deny that reality.

In 2023, the proverbial ladder many will attempt to climb will have endless rungs.

But what happens if you reach your goals but you leave some of that goodness you took for granted behind as you raced toward your resolutions?

Trust me, I want to be better in 2023, too. Just not at the expense of the good things I already have — things I hope never get lost in the wake of my goals.

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.