Time is running out to come up with a New Year’s resolution. Allow me to make a suggestion: try a year of extreme indulgence.
Have that glass of wine – or two. Savor that dessert with the oozing, molten chocolate center. Buy that slinky outfit you’ve been craving. Take that trip. Skip the daily grind on occasion and hang out with your friends instead. It worked for me, and I come from a long line of dour Scots, for whom denial and the Protestant work ethic constitute the Holy Grail.
If you need justification, I have good news for you: Science backs me up. And you’re not about to argue with science, right?
A few years ago, resolved to seek out pleasure, I recruited five other women to join me. All of us, you see, had the misfortune of being widowed in the prime of our lives. A year or two had passed for each, even more for me, and I had decided, in my dogged Protestant way, that it was necessary to work at being happy again.
I had dutifully read the literature and interviewed the experts on what might help those who are overcoming a traumatic loss, discovering, to my delight, that research overturned many of the stereotypes of what might do the trick. Sitting around in a sad-sack support group, crumpling tissues and reliving the anguish, can backfire, I learned, making some people feel worse rather than better. That was certainly the case for me. Ruminating at home alone had its limits, too. And the concept of delayed grief – that it can sneak up on you unless you wallow in the pain: simply untrue.
Researchers like George Bonanno of Columbia University have studied thousands of grieving people over time and concluded that after the initial trauma has passed, the bereaved can benefit from gathering with friends, sharing new and cheery experiences, laughing and indulging.
So I called the first meeting of our group on a January night and announced that we would dedicate ourselves for the next year to finding happiness, by whatever means necessary. While others might crave a little self-improvement, we had no choice. We had lost the most important people in our worlds, our best friends, our lovers, our sturdiest supports, the ones who made us laugh when necessary and gave us purpose when we needed that, too. In order to make our way forward with any hope of happiness, we needed to make changes, take risks, free up our thinking so we could tackle the tough choices ahead.
So we took a cooking class where we learned a recipe for double chocolate cookies, with runny centers that we licked off our fingers. We spent a weekend at a spa, a first for me, where everyone submitted to massages and we smuggled in a selection of cabernets and champagnes. We shopped for lingerie together, because the word “widow” alone is enough to make a woman feel about as sexy as a grilled cheese sandwich, and we needed visual aids. We chucked our responsibilities for 10 days and traveled to Morocco, because ... why not? We tried worthier pursuits, too, helping one of us move and volunteering at a camp for grieving children, but don’t ask me to pretend that virtue was our goal.
By rejecting traditional approaches to coping with grief, approaches that amounted almost to a form of penance, we encouraged each other to overcome guilt at surviving those we loved and to do what it took to be happy again. Hilarity often ensued. So did big decisions. Like starting to date. And making homes that were right for the lives we lived now, finding new and gratifying careers, befriending those who helped us look forward instead of back.
I know, I know, most of us can improve our lot with punitive New Year’s resolutions, taking off a few pounds, firming up those cheeks, shining up that résumé. But for anyone who has been through loss or trauma or pain, a resolution to indulge may be just the thing: a counterintuitive path to improvement. Or at least a jolt of necessary bliss.