- Brittany Montes, Psy. D.
About those New Year’s Resolutions
Somehow, we have found ourselves at the start of yet another new year. It seems that time moves quicker and quicker each year. A time-honored tradition for many across the globe is that of making the New Year's Resolution.
We’ve all been there. We’ve faced the new year full of hope and excitement, ready to make positive changes for your life and your future. These resolutions often focus on improving physical health and fitness, learning a new language, reading more, etc.
But, why do we value these resolutions so much? How did they become so intricately threaded into our societies and cultures? And if they are so important to us, why do the vast majority of resolutions fail? More importantly, is there anything to increase the chances of successfully meeting our resolution goals?
Where it began
It is believed that the tradition of New Year’s resolutions dates back approximately 4,000 years and began with the ancient Babylonian people. History shows that the Babylonians celebrated the New Year in mid-March as it coincided with the planting of crops (Pruitt, 2020).
New Year’s was celebrated with a religious festival, called Akitu, over a 12-day period. The festival either crowned a new king or re-affirmed their loyalty to their current king. Babylonians promised their gods that they would pay their debts and return borrowed items. It was believed that if they kept their word, their gods would bestow favor on them (Pruitt, 2020).
Around 46 BC, Julius Caeser established January 1st as the official start of the New Year. The month of January was named for Janus, the 2-faced god whose spirit was believed to inhabit doorways and arches. Roman citizens would offer sacrifices and make promises of good conduct to Janus. The New Year was also viewed as an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and look ahead to the next year (Pruitt, 2020).
Moving forward to 1740, an English clergyman named John Wesley created the Covenant Renewal Service, sometimes known as Night Watch Services, to serve as a more pious and reserved alternative to the partying that occurred on New Year’s Eve (Pruitt, 2020).
Presently, New Year’s Eve is viewed as a largely secular holiday. Many individuals have moved away from making promises to their gods and instead make promises to themselves and/or their loved ones. It is an opportunity for individuals to build community and accountability, and to have a fresh start. Notably, while approximately 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% are successful (Pruitt, 2020).
Why do New Year’s resolutions fail so frequently?
Like so many, you’ve started the New Year optimistic and eager to make positive changes in your life. As the year progresses, however, you start to realize that you’re not making progress toward those resolutions and ultimately abandon the efforts altogether.
What is it about New Year’s resolutions? Why do they fail so frequently despite your best intentions? The field of psychology can lend a hand in understanding why our New Year’s resolutions are often unsuccessful.
Generally, setting a goal in and of itself is not enough. We can set goals for all kinds of things, like running a marathon, but if the goal is not truly meaningful, we are highly unlikely to achieve it. Further, if we perceive that successfully achieving our resolutions is not necessary for daily functioning, we are unlikely to stick with the goal for more than a few weeks or months. Specifically, successfully running a marathon involves significant sacrifice and hard work. If you don’t view the benefits of achieving this goal as outweighing the incredible amount of work involved in training for a marathon, you will rapidly abandon your efforts (Alos-Ferrer, 2022; Vinney, 2023).
Another contributing factor to the failure of New Year’s resolutions is the nature of the resolution itself. Often, we set goals that are broad in nature. The goal covers multiple areas, which increases the effort required to successfully complete the goal. As a result, we often feel overwhelmed, abandon the goal, and resolve to try harder next year (Vinney, 2023).
Additionally, our own biology often works against our efforts to achieve our goals. Specifically, our brains are wired to take the path of least resistance-we will implement well-learned habits and automatic behaviors without even realizing that we have fallen into the same behaviors we’re trying to change (Vinney, 2023).
Can resolutions be successful?
While it may seem that New Year’s resolutions have little hope of seeing success by the end of the year, there is hope to that your resolution could come to fruition.
It is key to establish smaller and more attainable goals if you wish to see success in your New Year’s resolution. Setting small and attainable goals prevents you from becoming completely overwhelmed and abandoning your efforts. Additionally, you start to build more and more motivation has you achieve these smaller goals (Alos-Ferrer, 2022).
Your goals also need to be specific and relevant to your functioning and your life (Alos-Ferrer, 2022). Setting the goal of becoming fluent in French by December 31st is broad, likely unattainable, and not relevant if you are not in need of speaking fluent French in your day-to-day functioning. Conversely, if you are planning a month-long vacation to France, the goal becomes more relevant. However, achieving fluency in a language in under a year is unlikely. Instead, you are more likely to have success if your goal is to learn 2-3 basic French words/phrases per week leading up to your vacation.
Similarly, the APA (2022) recommends starting small and building on your achievements in order to increase your likelihood of achieving your goals. The APA also recommends focusing on one task at a time, rather than the broad picture, as you work toward your goal. Studies have also found that individuals who talk about their goals and reach out for support from their friends and family are more likely to achieve success (APA, 2022).
A final, but no less important, note reflects the need to allow yourself room to make mistakes without judging yourself. Unfortunately, we are bound to experience set backs, mistakes, and disappointments as we work toward our goals and perseveration on these pitfalls only decreases motivation and increases rates of ultimate failure (APA, 2022). As I tell my own patients, give yourself space and grace to be human and learn from the struggle.
The start of a new year is often an exciting time for individuals. Throughout history, the holiday has served as an opportunity for individuals to reflect on their growth and success of the previous year. It has also allowed individuals to consider the goals and expectations they have for the upcoming year. While New Year’s resolutions typically do not have a high success rate, they are not doomed for failure. In learning how to set specific, attainable, and relevant goals, we are better able to achieve our goals and reap their benefits and have a blue print for success at any time of the year.
Alos-Ferrer, Carlos. (2022, December 30). The psychology behind new year’s resolutions that work. Psychology Today. Https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-and-the-brain/202212/the-psychology-behind-new-years-resolutions-that-work
American Psychological Association. (2022, November 2). Making your new year’s resolution stick. APA. https://www.apa.org/topics/behavioral-health/new-year-resolutions
Pruitt, S. (2020, December 21). The history of making new year’s resolutions. History. https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-new-years-resolutions
Vinney, C. (2023, January 3). The psychology behind why new year’s resolutions fail. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/why-new-years-resolutions-fail-6823972
Dr. Montes is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in Chesapeake, VA.