Historically, a new year was marked by an astronomical event. For example, ancient Babylonians began the new year with the first new moon after the spring equinox. Today, however, the new year is simply marked with a date: January 1. While there’s nothing particularly special about New Year’s Day, it continues to inspire roughly 50 per cent of the population to be more fit, more efficient, and simply overall better versions of themselves.
Why do we set new year’s resolutions?
As far as timing goes, studies show that the new year is an especially promising period for setting goals, with New Year’s resolutioners experiencing a success rate over 10 times higher than people who make resolutions at other times of the year. The researchers found that those who stated that they would like to change a behaviour “some day” versus having a set deadline showed lower rates of success. The high rate of New Year’s resolutions can also be attributed to an interesting psychological phenomenon associated with over-optimistic goal-setting called ‘false hope syndrome.’ Essentially, this term refers to the fact that people tend to overestimate their ability to make changes in their lives.
Psychologists generally support the concept of “SMART” goals—that is, goals which are:
Specific: Reading ‘more’ books vs. Reading 10 books
Measurable: Run faster vs. Run 10K in under an hour
Achievable: Get to the Olympics vs. Go to the gym twice a week
Results-focused: Get straight As vs. Study 30-hours per week
Time-bound: “Learn how to count to 100 in French by Jan. 21”
What makes a bad new year’s resolution?
1. Individuals are not likely to achieve goals that are set for them by others. For example, parents may want their children to improve their GPA, but the student would prefer to volunteer on Saturdays rather than spend weekends at the library. Consequently, the student isn’t very likely to achieve a higher GPA, because it isn’t something he or she wants.
2. A goal that is very far in the future. Achieving goals is satisfying—studies show that it is more difficult to sustain motivation for long-term goals compared to short-term goals. Without a deadline, it is difficult to be motivated.
3. A goal that is too easy. In a paper published in the American Educational Research Journal, psychologists found that students who were randomly assigned a more challenging goal (in this case, answering more questions right on a quiz) on average performed better than those who were assigned an easier goal.
How to keep a new year’s resolution
1. Start small, and take resolutions one at a time. Psychologists have developed a model for those looking to attain their goals, called the “self-concordance theory.” This essentially describes the phenomenon whereby students who consider themselves to be more capable of achieving goals are more likely to achieve them. This generates a feedback loop—students who achieved goals saw themselves as more capable, which then made them more likely to achieve their next goal. Breaking goals down into milestones has been shown to help goal-setters take advantage of this.
2. Communicate and find support. A study done by the University of California, San Diego on individuals who were trying to lose weight found a correlation between the level of social support the subjects experienced and their diet and exercise habits. Participants who felt that they had a more supportive social network tended to improve their diet and exercise habits more effectively and were more likely to lose weight.
3. Stay positive. A 2005 paper from Utrecht University in the Netherlands in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that attitude was incredibly important to success. Essentially, an individual’s motivation is intimately related to his or her emotions; and those who thought positively were more likely to succeed than those who approached a situation negatively.