The Psychology of New Year’s Resolutions and How to Keep Them

The Psychology of New Year’s Resolutions and How to Keep Them

For many the start of a new year signals the opportunity to turn over a new leaf. New year’s resolutions are seen as a way in which we can improve our lives. In 2016 a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, investigated New Year’s resolutions, and found that 55% of resolutions were health related, such as exercising more, or eating healthier. These kinds of resolutions can be particularly important for those with a chronic illness or condition. Unfortunately, the reality is while many of us make these resolutions with the best intentions, many of us fail to follow through for any significant period of time. It is estimated that around 80% of these resolutions go out the window by the beginning of February. So how do you give yourself the best chance of sticking with it?

An Activity Not a Chore

A study, led by Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago, found that participants believe that both enjoyment and importance are significant factors in whether they stick to their resolutions. In fact, the researchers found that the enjoyment factor was the only thing that really mattered. Essentially what it boils down to is you are more likely to stick to a resolution if there is some kind of immediate gratification achieved from doing so. Try to reframe your resolutions in a way that appeals to your fun side. The problem appears to be as a result from internal battles between doing what you want versus doing what you know you should. A simple way to improve your chances is to not overthink an activity, do not allow yourself to imagine how awful it will be whilst doing it, rather try imaging the feeling once the activity has been completed. Instead of saying the word “should”, which is associated with guilt and lack of decision, replace it with the word “will”. Removing non-committal words will help you to remain focused. If you know you need to exercise more but the thought of going to gym or for a run fills you with dread, try finding an activity where the goal is to enjoy yourself and exercise is a convenient by-product. If you appreciate nature walk a trail or if you think you have rhythm take a dance class. If exercise is not the sole point of an activity, and the focus is shifted away from it you are more likely to continue to do it.


False Hope Gives False Comfort

Another major factor that contributes to the failure to stick to our resolutions is that we to set ourselves up for disappointment by setting unrealistic goals. This is termed the “false hope syndrome”. In deciding on our resolutions, we tend to have vastly idealistic expectations regarding the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing our behaviour. Instead of making large indefinite resolutions such as I must exercise more or I must lose weight, repackage resolutions into smaller, more easily achievable short-term goals such as I will walk 5 additional miles per week or I will lose 2lbs per month for three months. Resolutions should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Most of us are also inclined to make far too many resolutions creating a route to failure. This divides our focus and can be overwhelming, leading us to give up all together. Rather choose one or two key factors to focus on. Do one thing at a time, once you have one thing under control it is far easier to begin and stick with a second change. This allows them to support you but will also give a measure of accountability. It is far easier to give up when no one else knows you are trying. A further benefit is you might inspire those close to you to join you and as we know it is far easier to implement a positive behaviour if others are doing it too. If you are trying to quit smoking while those around you continue the habit you will be far more tempted to fall off the wagon.


Don’t limit yourself, resolutions do not need to only happen at the start of the year, any time you feel motivated is the perfect time to set new goals. Don’t limit yourself by starting with an all or nothing approach. If you only exercised 3 days in the week instead of 4 see it as an achievement, if you lose 5lbs instead of 10lbs see it as an achievement. Accept that you might lapse during the process, don’t be too hard on yourself, you are learning and you might not get it right immediately. Bad habits take years to become ingrained so there is no quick fix solution. Start each day afresh, focus on what you have achieved, not on what you have not. Despite the difficulties of sticking with resolutions, a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that people who do make resolution are ten times more likely to achieve their goal than those that don’t. So, as January approaches think about some aspects you would like to change, use the above tips and start working towards a healthier happier you.   

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Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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