January 13

Do We Have Free Will? Can We Change?

According to a poll, a majority of Americans officially (whatever that means) quit their New Year’s resolutions on, or by February 1 of the New Year. The main reason for quitting is that most of us don’t fully believe in our own resolutions in the first place. We feel that change is only possible if we’re destined to change, and that we don’t have the free will to effect significant or lasting life transformations. Does this theory hold water? Can we change?

As the clocks ticked over on January 1, we had many reasons to rejoice.

  • We made it out of last year alive.
  • Absolutely no one cared for the fashion trend of wearing sunglasses at night; so that trend is behind us. Thankfully. Phew.
  • Our planet orbited the sun successfully once again.
  • We still have an inhabitable planet.

New Years of all kinds (solar, lunar, cultural, religious) are occasions not just to celebrate survival but a natural inflection point to look forward to new beginnings. But as anyone who has made (and subsequently failed at) their New Year’s resolutions knows, it takes more than just baubles, champagne and wishful thinking to usher in lasting change.

The key to real transformations

Above all, there are two key factors that lead to real transformations. Both may sound a bit woo woo, but science is starting to back these arguments.

  • A mindset shift that we have the power, through our thoughts and actions, to steer our lives in the direction we want it to go. In other words, a belief that life isn’t a set of pre-determined options and that we have the ability to influence our choices.
  • The future matters more than the past. That, instead of our past successes or failures, our future goals and visions determine how (or whether) we move forward.

Do we have free will?

If there’s one attribute that sets our species apart from other living beings, it’s our innate, and seemingly insatiable, need to argue. And one argument that we’ve had forever is whether we humans have free will or if everything in life is pre-determined.

Determinism is the technical term—the philosophical doctrine that every event, including all human actions, are predestined and that no one has any power to influence actions or decisions. According to the deterministic view, there is one and only one way an event can take place and that everything is pre-ordained and inevitable.

Free willers, on the other hand, believe in the contrary—that we have agency over our thoughts and actions and can influence our behaviors.

The argument between determinism and free will has intrigued philosophers from Plato and Kant to the Twitter philosophers of our generation. Many religious and spiritual texts, too, comment on this issue. While most of the commentary isn’t too conclusive, they tend to be very illuminating.

Free will over the process, not the results

In the Bhagavad Gita, for example, the law of Karma is based on the concept of cause and effect. That what we do today influences what happens in the future. And conversely, what happens today is the product of our past actions. Which may sound like a win for the school of determinism. But importantly, this where the Gita makes a very clear between action and results.

The text is very clear that we do have and should exert influence over our actions, but, and here’s the caveat, without regard to the results. For instance, it’s okay for me to write these words because I believe in them and feel they can add value to someone else. But, if I write these words with the sole expectation that everyone would read this passage and subsequently transform their lives, I’m simply being delusional.

Why belief in agency matters

A 2002 research study showed that participants who believed that life was a series of deterministic choices behaved less ethically and morally than those who believed in free will. In the study, participants engaged in cheating and were dishonest after they read passages about determinism.

It’s common sense, really. If you believe you have no agency over what happens, it gives you less motivation to act morally, or to push yourself harder, because after all, what’s the point? Extrapolate this argument to include all of society and, soon we’ll all be swimming in chaos because no one would want to take moral responsibility for their actions.

The wrong way to YOLO

Knowing our time on this earth is limited and that we have no control over how long that is, isn’t justification to live recklessly. Sure, a super fit, kale-eating athlete could get hit by the bus on the street tomorrow and die, but a lifestyle that involves never-ending Netflix binges for entertainment and junk foods for sustenance is simply a way to accelerate the end.

Here’s the long and short of it: We do have agency, aka free will over how we live. And doing the best we can, under our circumstances, is the surest bet we can make towards real transformation.

Morning guy problem

Jerry Seinfeld has said that one of his favorite stand-up bits is the “night guy versus morning guy” routine. In the bit, Seinfeld describes how each of us has two conflicting personalities. At night, after our responsibilities for the day are done, we become “night guy.” We stay up watching TV late into the night, knowing fully well we have to wake up early to go to work the next morning. We can relax into “night guy” mode, because we tell ourselves that waking up and getting to work the next day isn’t really our problem, it’s the “morning guy’s” problem! “Morning guy,” on the other hand, isn’t a happy camper because “night guy” makes life really difficult for him.

Not the past. The future.

Without a clear definition of the future, it is easy to idle away our present by blaming our past.

Our past doesn’t define us. It simply prepares us for the future. Moreover, our past does not influence our lives as much as the future does. Consciously or unconsciously, every single one of our actions is motivated by a future goal. But, without adequate planning, instead of envisioning life-changing long-term goals, we often settle for immediate, short-term rewards.

Most New Year’s resolutions contain some form of wellness goals—exercise, eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, etc. But if we don’t set concrete SMART goals, it is easy to get derailed. The short-term dopamine hit we get when we stay late at night to scroll through social media, or binge-watch just one more episode of The White Lotus, may seem worthwhile. After all, what’s one day of lost sleep? But without clearly identified long-term goals and accountability, it is easy to keep up less-than-ideal behaviors.

No destination = No fulfillment

The point is this: it doesn’t matter where we are or how we got here. What matters is where we want to go and to define a clear roadmap to get there.

Working on day-to-day tasks without a goal in mind is like getting into the car without knowing where you are going. Sure, you can have some fun along the way, but the point of driving is to get somewhere. Without clearly defined goals, we lose our ability to separate the signal from the noise. The urgent tasks will always win over the important ones. The only way to break that cycle is to envision and define the future you hope to have.


The average New Year’s resolution lasts eight days. It is easy to get disheartened and blame our destiny, or our past when our wished-for changes don’t materialize year after year.

But to achieve lasting transformation, you need to believe in two things: that you have the power to create change, and you have a clear vision of what those changes are. Everything else, as they say, is in the details.

Happy New Year!



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