New Year Resolutions: Helpful or Failure-prone?


Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!

These words symbolize a clean slate and a chance to set goals for the year ahead. However, the efficacy of New Year’s resolutions is somewhat controversial: do they help us achieve our goals, or do they only lead to failure and self-disappointment? The truth is they can do both…

It may seem arbitrary to make resolutions only on January first, as opposed to any other day of the year. People pressure themselves to start the year out strong, but why not any other day? There is psychological research that suggests benefits to starting a new routine on the first day of the New Year. One advantage is called the “fresh-start effect.” Psychologists have discovered that we tend to create a narrative of our lives separated into different chapters.

According to Katy Milkman, a psychology professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, “People tend to think about life as if they’re characters in a book.” Therefore, it is easy for people to view the New Year as a fresh start, which can be likened to turning to a blank page and separating from past mistakes.

Milkman and a couple of colleagues investigated the “fresh-start effect” in many settings. Their findings demonstrated that people were not only to start setting goals at the New Year, but also after holiday breaks, and even on Mondays. Further, Milkman and her colleges wanted to test out the “fresh-start effect,” so they invited participants to sign up for an email reminder of their goals while including subtle differences in the wording of the reminder.

For some students, the date was titled “the third Thursday in March,” and for others, the date was titled “the first day of spring.” Unsurprisingly, those who were encouraged to think of the date as a fresh start were more likely to start implementing their goals on the first day of spring. Psychologically speaking, the New Year is an easy way for people to wipe their slates clean and start anew.

Although the New Year is an optimal time for a fresh start, researchers at Scranton University found that only 19 percent of people keep their resolutions. People tend to blame themselves for lack of willpower, but that is not the problem; it is one’s mindset. One has to be ready to create change for it to occur.

According to psychotherapist John Albert, the problem lies not in the individual but in the resolution itself. One error is that individuals’ goals are not specific enough. People often make goals that are too vague and lofty. Instead, if one makes a goal that allows them to mark their progress continuously, that person is more likely to follow through. Another issue is that people may frame their goals negatively rather than positively. For example, when people say that they want to stop eating “junk food,” it will likely backfire because they will be thinking about it more. Instead, it would be beneficial to be more positive and think about the kinds of healthy snacks they could add to their diet. Finally, people often make resolutions based upon societal standards, which may not apply to themselves, only leading to that goal’s inevitable failure.

With all of this information about New Year’s Resolutions, one thing becomes clear. If the New Year seems like a good time for a “fresh start,” make sure to set realistic goals that you can follow instead of plans destined for failure.



Psychology Today

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