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Short-lived resolutions

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night . . . " will keep smokers from the entry of office buildings.

The ancient Greek verse that typically describes the resolve of mail delivery is equally apt when applied to nicotine delivery.

The site of wet or shivering smokers outside in the worst weather is the very epitome of an overtaken will. Ask regulars in your building's smokers' alley, and most will tell you they've tried to quit before but always relapse.

Smokers, while shackled with a most conspicuous habit, aren't the only ones who engage in actions that are harmful to personal well-being. People overeat, fail to exercise, procrastinate, overspend. There are virtually as many bad habits and damaging addictions as there are humans.

As we enter a new year and think about our resolutions, the universal truth is: We've been there before and failed.

Just take a look at reports from health clubs where steep membership spikes in January are inevitably followed by deep attendance declines by Valentine's Day. University of Rhode Island professor James Prochaska has found that only 55 percent of New Year's resolutions are still being kept after a month. By two years out, the number dips to 19 percent.

Maybe that's why our president-elect's DUI conviction and years of frat-boy irresponsibility caused barely a shrug from the electorate. Today, George W. Bush seems to have overcome those foibles. That's a feat we tend to regard more highly than the life-long rectitude of his former opponent, Al Gore, who appeared to have emerged from the womb with all the human failings of a GI Joe.

We love stories of people who change their lives around through force of will. It gives us all hope.

But what exactly is it about self-control that is so elusive? Why is our species, the one at the top of the food chain, so willing to engage in behavior that we know intellectually will cut our lives shorter or undermine our personal growth or success?

It turns out our brain is working at cross-purposes.

According to research conducted by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is a particular area of the brain called the basal ganglia where the nerves are highly responsive to the stimulation received by food and drugs. The team's leader, professor of neuroscience Ann Graybiel, explained in the Sunday Times of London that rewards, or positive stimuli, create strong communication pathways in that part of the brain. (So you might not be weak-willed, just born with particularly garrulous ganglia.) Negative stimuli or alternative rewards can break and alter those pathways, but much depends on the immediacy of delivery.

Having a hangover a day after drinking too much or putting on a few extra pounds over the holidays are negatives too remote to affect changes.

"Good health is not an instant byproduct of stopping smoking or drinking. It's a long-term byproduct," Graybiel told the Sunday Times. "Our biology is saying it's not worth it because we are not getting an instant reward."

Also our brain apparently pays much more attention to rewards than to punishments, which helps explain why smokers are willing to withstand weather conditions that would give pause to Sir Edmund Hillary.

So how do we overcome this wiring problem? Experts have a few suggestions: You can try to trick your brain by substituting one reward for another. Careful, though, you don't want to be replacing a cigarette with a Reese's, or vice versa.

Changing the context of the habit can also help. If you tend to want a sweet after a meal, take a walk instead and then see how you feel.

Your last lifeline is, to borrow a phrase, phone a friend. Researchers say that our mastery of ourselves is easier when others are encouraging our success or watching (and judging) our failure.

But if none of this is to your liking, just wait. Pop diva Cher once said that if a great body came in a bottle everyone would have one. My guess is, it's coming. I suspect, science will one day soon perfect a way to alter or block the brain's bad-habit communication. Resolve will no longer require John McCain-like superhuman fortitude, but merely a trip to the pharmacy.

Now that would make for a happy new year.

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