On New Year’s Resolutions

Do New Year’s resolutions work? Do they set us up for disappointment? Are they a marketing ploy to increase sales, particularly of fitness equipment and gym memberships, at the beginning of every year? Or can they actually be helpful, an honest effort and impetus, however, brief, to genuinely improve our lives?

Different studies over the years have shown high levels of initial success, e.g. 1 week, diminishing more rapidly by a month, and with limited success after one and two years. In general, it appears, individuals fail more frequently when they make weight resolutions versus non-weight related resolutions, e.g. smoking or drinking.

An interesting study, published in 2002, aimed to not just measure the rates of resolution success, but also the driving forces behind it, and to directly answer whether resolution actually effected change as contrasted to individuals contemplating change. The study indicates that its success rates may be slightly inflated due to the nature of self-reporting, with less successful applicants declining follow-up interviews or making up more successful results, and with some of the participants being motivated to stick to their resolutions because they know they will have follow-up interviews. However, it is important to note several things from the study. First, that 40% of American adults make New Year’s Resolutions every year. Second, that non-successful resolvers are likely to make the same resolution the following years until some degree of success has been achieved. And third, that resolving is not in vain and that most participants do achieve initial success, even if this is not particularly long lasting. As the authors point out, the rate of success should be compared to non-resolvers, i.e. people who don’t make a conscious effort to improve at all.

Most importantly, and surprisingly, once the initial resolution had been made, desire to change had no correlation with resolution success. Instead, success was found by participants who used techniques of “self-liberation, stimulus control reinforcement management, positive thinking, and avoidance strategies”, whereas those who were unsuccessful were characterized by “self-reevaluation, wishful thnking, self-blame, and minimized threat”. That is, those who were more successful better managed and kept on top of the situation and goals, whereas those who were unsuccessful were more likely to get frustrated, blame themselves, and/or talk themselves out of the need to change.

Thus, it’s better to try out a New Year’s resolution than not at all. And above all, stay positive. What’s your New Year’s resolution?

Auld Lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers


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