12/31/2012 02:47 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

Be Realistic -- Expect a Miracle: How to Make and Keep Our New Year's Resolutions

The poet U.A. Fanthorpe tells us, in one of her Christmas poems, to be "Be realistic: expect a miracle." When we make our New Year's resolutions, we often expect a miracle, but we aren't very realistic. We make our resolutions with enthusiasm and verve, and all too soon abandon them with embarrassment and failure.

So what might make the difference? How can a spiritual life help us make realistic resolutions that will result in a miracle -- or at least genuine transformation of life? Here are four common problems that often plague those pesky resolutions, with some suggestions of how we might do things differently.

It's not all up to you

As we make our resolutions and put them into action, we often think we have to rely on willpower alone, and then we feel especially bad about ourselves when we fail. Christianity brings another concept into the frame: grace. We don't have to do this alone. Those of us who are Christians have just celebrated Christmas -- the birth of Jesus, God with us -- which is a reminder that God accompanies us in all things. We ask for divine help, and grace enters our lives and surprises us, sustaining us, giving us a lift up. This is one reason why twelve-step programs work for so many people; that act of turning things over to a power that is other than (higher than) human power works.

Look outward

Our resolutions can be self-absorbed. We want to lose weight, get fitter, stop smoking. These are all good things in themselves but resolutions that are outward-looking can often be more successful because they engage us in our wider community. A recent research project at the University of California, Riverside, showed that children who did things for others became happier, kinder and more popular with their classmates.

All the major religions urge us to look beyond ourselves and serve others. Christianity teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In Buddhism there are six perfections, or paramitas, transcendental qualities that are needed for making progress towards enlightenment. The very first of these is giving, or generosity. As the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo writes:

Giving is placed first because it is something we can all do right now. We don't have to be ethically perfect, we don't have to be great meditators, we don't have to develop great patience and avoid anger in all circumstances. We can be extremely flawed, extremely problematic people, but still be generous. Giving opens up our heart, which is another reason why it is placed first.

So we don't have to be perfect (or amazingly fit or thin) to do something for someone else. We can do it just as we are.

Get a soul friend; be part of a spiritual community

We get frustrated when we fail to keep our resolutions and then we begin to think badly of ourselves. But we have to remember that we are not the best monitors of our own souls. Self-examination is important, and our New Year's resolutions may involve it, but we can be poor judges of ourselves and get downhearted if we attempt such examination entirely alone. There is a reason that Christianity has a long tradition of spiritual directors and soul friends. We all need someone with whom we can be utterly ourselves. We all need a companion on the way who can look us in the eye, tell us honestly how we are doing, and yet do so generously and with encouragement, and reflect back to us the wisdom we are seeking. That's a soul friend.

One of the great advantages of participating in organized religion is being part of a community that is engaged in the same spiritual exercises. Communal religion isn't for everyone in these days of being 'spiritual but not religious,' but shared rituals and spiritual values can give us a sense of support that the isolated spiritual life cannot.

Choose resolutions you will enjoy

The great religions encourage us to enjoy and give thanks for the bounty of life. Take this Jewish prayer, said on tasting any fruit for the first time in a season, or on special anniversaries, for example.

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe,
who has kept us in life and preserved us,
and has enabled us to reach this season.

And yet so often our resolutions are dull and worthy: they have nothing to do with the celebration of life, and we therefore have little chance of keeping them. There is a parallel between New Year's resolutions and Lenten discipline in the Christian tradition here. Too often, we regard Lent as a spiritual marathon, full of hardships, but Lent is really a season of both inner reflection and turning outward towards God and the world: that's all positive. So it is with resolutions. While we may want to engage in some self-improvement, that doesn't mean just gritting our teeth and bearing it.

So choose a resolution that will be fun, let your soul breathe and your spirits soar. Be realistic -- and expect a miracle.

Happy New Year.