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Are New Year’s Resolutions Doomed to Fail?

With the start of a new year on the horizon, many of us will be looking to self-improve in the months ahead. But what are the chances of failure and success? And is there anything we can do to ensure some sort of achievement?

New Years ResolutionsEvery New Year’s Eve a barrage of us share our goals and resolutions for the year ahead. There is something about the fresh start of the next 12 months that gets our minds churning and our ambitions flowing. We adopt a can-do attitude, if we don’t already display one, and look to the future with perhaps overly-optimistic expectations.

Those expectations are less about what the future can do for us and more about what we can do for the future. Or more specifically, what we can do to improve the prospects of our future. After all, we spend an awful lot of the year contemplating how we can improve, and as Abraham Maslow pointed out in his hierarchy of needs, once we have fulfilled one ambition, we look to the next.

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, we should probably look to the top of Maslow’s pyramid where self-actualisation occurs. “What a man can be, he must be,” Maslow claimed. Here, man, or woman, has fulfilled their most basic of needs, like food, family and funds, to achieve a kind of greater glory – that which they always imagined themselves to be.

But before we delve further into the success rate of resolutions and why the majority fail, let’s first consider the history behind New Year’s resolutions.

How did New Year’s Resolutions Come to Being?

Ancient BabyloniansIt was around 4,000 years ago when the Babylonians began marking the New Year – they celebrated it on what would now be dated March 23rd. This seems to make sense as it is the beginning of spring, when lambs are born and plants begin to blossom. The ancient civilisation took 11 days to celebrate the beginning of another year, with each day significant in its own way.

The Romans too looked at late-March as the best time to observe the New Year. However, their calendar was continuously tampered with until Julius Caesar put a stop to it to by returning it to January 1st. In order to achieve this, however, the previous year had to last 445 days to bring it in line with the sun.

January is named after the two-faced Roman god Janus, who is renowned not for being a back-stabber (ironically in the context of Caesar!), but for the dual way he looked to both the past and the future. He was the protector of gateways and doorways and, quite simply, entrances into the future that one could argue also closed the door to the past.

The Roman Empire started a custom of New Year’s resolutions but they mostly concentrated on treating others better. When Christianity was adopted as the official religion in the 4th century, however, prayers and fasting replaced these moral ideas. Still, the Christians remained cautious about marking anything that could be seen as pagan and related to Janus.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, the Puritans had developed a tradition of New Year’s resolutions that are what we are most accustomed to today. Regarded as one of America’s greatest intellectuals, Jonathan Edwards turned writing down resolutions into a kind of art form having compiled 70 ideas between the ages of 19 and 20 that have since formed a famed list.

So there we go – the idea of resolutions sort of snowballed from a general approach to being a better person to a more rigid objective of improving the self. Among Edwards’s many resolutions was his vow to “live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die”. That sounds very much like Maslow’s idea of trying to live up to the person we imagine ourselves to be.

The Top Resolutions for the US and UK

Top 10 New Years resolutions 2012

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Getting Organized
  3. Spend Less, Save More
  4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
  5. Staying Fit and Healthy
  6. Learn Something Exciting
  7. Quit Smoking
  8. Help Others in Their Dreams
  9. Fall in Love
  10. Spend More Time with Family

Source: Statistics Brain

The Romans’ resolutions of ‘goodwill towards others’ have seemingly given way to more personal goals for the year ahead. A list compiled by the University of Scranton, and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, showed that weight loss was the number one New Year’s resolution for Americans in 2012. This was followed by getting organised, spending less money, enjoying life to the fullest and staying fit and healthy. Quitting smoking also featured in the top ten.

A study by Channel 4 in the UK showed that the number one New Year’s resolution for 2012 was losing weight. This was followed by the intention to get fit, eat more healthily, save money and spend more time with people who matter. The lists from the UK and the US somewhat mirror each other and show what seem to be Westerners’ biggest goals for the next 12 months.

All of this sounds great, if not a little typical.

Yes, I can shed pounds. Sure, I can spend more wisely. I’ll hit the gym, sculpt my body, ensure a work promotion and by the next New Year I’ll be a new person!

Yet going by Maslow’s reckoning, we’d all come up with new and impressive ways to build on ourselves if we actually did fulfil these objectives.

What About the Psychology Behind Success?

An interesting insight into what makes people tick, especially in the context of New Year’s resolutions, was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2005. Researchers Gita Johar and Mukhopadhyay Anirban basically came up with two kinds of people, one of which is more likely to succeed with a resolution.

It was suggested that those who believe self-control is limited also have a lack of belief in themselves and their ability to achieve personal goals. They have what is referred to as low self-efficacy and, as such, tend not to stick at their New Year’s resolutions.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that self-control is dynamic, giving them greater control over their ability to succeed in their goals. They have high self-efficacy and attribute failure to a lack of effort. Those with low self-efficacy tend to blame failure on an innate inability to reach their goals. So it is little surprise that self-belief goes a long way to seeing through a New Year’s resolution.

What Shapes These Self Perceptions?

American psychologist and self-help guru Dr Martin Segliman has pointed to the effects of cynicism. Have we been taught to be critical and belittle any sense of hope or aspiration? In the late 1960s, Dr Segliman’s theory of “learned helplessness” came to light. In effect, it suggests human beings have developed a psychological condition that sees them behave helplessly in a particular situation. Echoing the research from the Journal of Consumerism, this showed that it was a perceived inability to achieve a goal that curbed an individual’s success, rather than an actual lack of ability.

All of this appears to be quite positive as it suggests it is up to us whether or not we can keep our New Year’s resolutions. It seems how well we do depends on how much faith we have in ourselves, which in turn can be influenced from within, as well as through societal pressures.

Any Practical Tips?

In that vein, it is important to look to research from the University of Washington, which has shed light on what factors play a crucial role in achieving resolutions. These are not about having faith in our abilities, but practical ideas on how to stay motivated.

Study author Elizabeth Miller wrote:

The keys to making a successful resolution are a person’s confidence that he or she can make the behaviour change and the commitment to making that change.

The researcher adds that

resolutions are processes, not a one-time effort that offer people a chance to create new habits”.

So basically, we can’t decide on New Year’s Eve to lose 20 pounds in the New Year. We have to set out our goals more sensibly and with a long-term dedication if we are to stand any chance of success.

The late Dr Alan Marlatt, who was the director of the Addictive Behaviours Research Centre at the University of Washington, suggested three keys to sticking to a resolution:

  • Have a strong initial commitment to make a change
  • Have coping strategies to deal with problems that will come up
  • Keep track of your progress. The more monitoring you do and feedback you get, the better you will do

Research from the University of Hertfordshire has shown that 78 per cent of people who set New Year’s resolutions failed. The study, carried out on 700 participants, found that the majority of people missed their goal due to focusing too heavily on not achieving success. This is again familiar to the aforementioned studies that showed failure was based on a lack of self-belief. If we set goals we don’t believe we can achieve, then how can we expect to be successful?

So What Can I Do To Stand a Chance of Achievement?

It is not that New Year’s resolutions are silly, or that they are impossible to keep. However, they may be doomed because of the way we set them and our mental approach to them. All the research seems to point to a number of conclusions:

  • Goals should be achievable and part of long-term personal improvement
  • They should be well thought out and monitored to maintain motivation
  • Ultimately, successful New Year’s resolutions require genuine self-belief and not New Year’s Eve bravado that has already worn off by the afternoon of January 1st

This New Year, demonstrate some personal faith and shoot for a goal that is personal to you, not everybody else.

Happy New Year 2013

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3 comments to “Are New Year’s Resolutions Doomed to Fail?”

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  1. Joanna says:

    The problem is that new years resolutions are mostly referring to changes that people were trying to make in their lives for a long time and they couldn’t keep it (like loosing weight or exercising) Unfortunately some think that the fact that it’s a new year will give them more will to do it. And there is no magic! It’s all about hard work and your attitude like you mentioned in the article! But of course it’s easy to say. I actually would like to talk to someone who kept their resolution and ask them how the hell did they do it!

  2. Adam says:

    I always make a mental New Year’s list of what attributes I would like to improve, rarely are these weight loss as such, just getting fitter and healthier mostly. Like previous years it probably won’t last long though LOL. I give it to end of January!

  3. Jo says:

    I find that thinking of losing weight / doing more exercise as a New Year resolution gives me more excuse to overindulge over Christmas as you just think ‘What the heck! I’ll sort it out in the New Year’. Then when New Year comes around it feels like there is even more work to do which makes for a depressing start to the New Year. That and the fact that all the Christmas goodies are still hanging around for a while after Christmas makes it a huge act of willpower to get started on the resolution in the first place!

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