Psychology: Why we make (and break) resolutions

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? And, if so, do you keep them? Velvet writer Riadh Falvo looks into the psychology of making, breaking and keeping resolutions

If you’re looking back at some of those failed resolutions from this time last year - whether they’re serving as a reminder that you’re bound to fail, or if they inspire you instead to try harder, love longer, laugh louder, forgive and try again for 2022 - just remember that this tradition is destined to live on whether we win or lose those little wagers we make with ourselves. We have 4,000 years of history of making (and largely breaking) New Year’s resolutions, and yet here we are, still hopeful.

Velvet looks into the psychology of making - and breaking - New Year's resolutions (53621000)
Velvet looks into the psychology of making - and breaking - New Year's resolutions (53621000)

So why do we make NY resolutions? “In the dark of winter when reminders of light are increasingly fleeting, people may use the arrival of a new year as a temporal marker of a new chapter, something that has been called by researchers as the ‘fresh-start effect’,” says Dr Nelli Ferenczi of Brunel University London’s Centre for Culture and Evolution, Psychology (citing Dai, Milkman, & Riis, 2014). “The ‘fresh-start effect’ refers to people relying on certain time periods as markers for new beginnings – such as a new year, new school year, new semester, start of a season, etc.”

Or, according to one Cambridge-based counsellor: “I think we make them because it is innate in us to always do better, achieve more, and to be a better version of ourselves.”

What are some of the reasons we break them? “Time: we expect that just like the countdown on NYE, to a new calendar, it is easy to change,” says a Cambridge psychotherapist. To paraphrase, it is difficult to change overnight. A better question might be why we wish to change in the first place and in whose eyes? If it is to be seen as something else, anything other than what we are, to another, then we are doomed to fail. Adds the expert: “In order to change, we need to accept what it is that we want and why, and this in itself is a process that takes time.”

Basically, we set ourselves up for failure. “There could be a number of reasons why we break NY resolutions, such as setting ourselves unrealistic goals, and changing circumstances over which we have no control,” says Fahim Rochford, another psychotherapist based in Cambridge. “If the basis for the resolution is what others are telling you to do or what to change, we are bound to fail. What CAN be helpful is to reflect on the one true motivation behind what it is you would like to change, and why.”

What are we resolving to do - and why? “In a study of more than 1,000 participants in Sweden - Oscarsson, Carlbring, Andersson, & Rozenthal, 2020 - researchers found that the most popular New Year’s resolutions focused on the ways that we present ourselves: specifically physical health, weight loss, and eating habits,” says Dr Ferenczi. “Other research suggests that recurring themes include personal growth, academic success, and interpersonal relationships.”

According to YouGov, health dominates the resolutions chart for 2022. Doing more exercise and improving fitness comes top (53%), with losing weight (48%) in second place and improving diet third (39%). Up six percentage points from last year, 15% of resolution-makers aim to spend less time on social media.

Velvet looks into the psychology of making - and breaking - New Year's resolutions (53621001)
Velvet looks into the psychology of making - and breaking - New Year's resolutions (53621001)

How can we keep our resolutions? “The researchers followed up with participants a year later to find that over half - 55% - felt that they had been successful in keeping their New Year’s resolutions,” continues Dr Ferenczi.

“Interestingly, participants who take a more approach-oriented perspective to their goals were more successful in keeping their resolutions compared to those who took an avoidance-oriented perspective.

“A little external help didn’t go amiss either – in this experimental study, participants who were given information about the positive impacts of social support as well as exercises to overcome common hurdles when trying to complete personal goals, were more successful in keeping their New Year’s resolutions.”

Take-home message: social support seems to be important to keeping resolutions. Also, framing goals as something to approach rather than something to avoid, ie. “I will improve my physical health by learning how to run 5k” is an example of an approach-oriented goal that focuses on positive outcomes; “I will avoid eating junk food because I will be unhealthy” is an avoidance-oriented goal because it focuses on negative outcomes.

Just the act of making yourself a little promise can help to make a challenging situation easier to navigate. It can also eventually improve our lives because just envisioning a better future motivates you to take the steps necessary to make it happen.

Just remember what the experts say: try to make those resolutions more manageable, more achievable, therefore more successful by linking them to something positive that is already a habit - and, perhaps most importantly, forgive yourself if you break them.

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