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Science, The Mind

Fact or Fiction: Do New Year’s Resolutions actually Work?

New Year’s Resolutions: Just what is the point?  I used to hate the idea of resolving to do something good just because it was a new year. And yet there seems to be something magical about the stroke of midnight on December 31st: Many of us pledge to get fitsave money or stop smoking. Having witnessed family and friends make dozens of failed attempts, it’s tempting to think that Oscar Wilde had it right…

Resolutions are “pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil”. Oscar Wilde (1909), The Picture of Dorian Gray

What are your New Year's resolutions?

These days I’m less of a resolution-hater. In fact I’ve actually quite warmed to the idea, and I’ve even made myself a few New Year’s resolutions for this year: To start writing a book, to change my gym routine and to make sure I have more fun! But will I just be like everyone else; starting with good intentions, but disappointed and disillusioned a couple of months down the line?

Psychologists have tried to answer these questions and a team of researchers from America did some intensive work to find out the secret of sticking to New Year’s resolutions. Read on to find out if you’ve got what it takes to carry through on your resolution…

The Great New Year’s Resolution Experiment

Scranton, "The Electric City". Apparently.

If you hate cold-callers, then the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania isn’t a good place to live. One Christmas-time, a team of American psychologists decided to work their way through the Scranton phonebook, telephoning at random to find out who would talk to them about their new year’s plans. Lots of people just hung up, but after six days (and 1,300 phone calls later) a good-sized group of people had agreed.  Over the following weeks and months, these recruits were contacted repeatedly and given psychological tests to try to unravel why some people stick to new year’s resolutions and other people just can’t be bothered.

The Top New Year Resolutions

Losing weight is the most common New Year's resolution

Less than half of people (40%) actually bother with New Year’s resolutions, but when we do we’re most likely to decide to:

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Exercise More
  3. Stop Smoking

How successful are New Year’s Resolutions?

We like to think that we are makers of our own destiny, but when the rubber hits the road, making meaningful changes in our day-to-day lives is frustratingly difficult. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s some depressing statistics to warm the cockles of your heart: 

What a bunch of poorly disciplined creatures we are!

New Year is actually a good time to make a change!

It is incredible then, that New Year’s resolutions are actually pretty successful! With only a calendar date for motivation, the process of making a new year’s resolution makes us ten times as likely to succeed in our goals!

Ok, ok, so most resolutions (54%) have still been abandoned by July; but in the light of the normal human ability to break habits, this is ain’t too bad! 

“I didn’t fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong” Benjamin Franklin

Inside the mind: How to succeed at New Year’s Resolutions

Through probing quizzes and questionnaires, the researchers whittled down what were the key things were in people who could stick to a new year resolution. They made a surprising and remarkable discovery: People who really want to succeed are no more likely to stick to a New Year’s resolution than anyone else! Even an overflowing desire to change just isn’t good enough when it comes to making a meaningful and lasting life-change. What they did find out was that people who could stick to a resolution:

  • Had made a clear decision to change,
  • Believed that they were able to change,
  • Believed it was possible to keep it up over a long period of time.

Wanting something isn't enough to succeed. Self-belief is far more important


The team of researchers then went on to discover that successful ‘new year’s resolvers actually used lots of little mental tricks – even if they didn’t realise it! These ‘resolution-succeeders’:

  • Tried to stay as positive as possible
  • Avoided and distracted themselves from things that might tempt them to give up
  • Encouraged themselves whenever they made good progress

And the people who were quitting the gym-membership in the first week of February would:

  • Blame themselves any time things didn’t go to plan
  • Spend time wishing that things were different
  • Kept asking themselves how they were feeling

Spending too much time thinking about emotions and feelings will lead to resolution failure

New Year’s Resolutions: Should You bother?

Alternative life advice from Homer Simpson

Flippant and ill-considered new year’s resolutions aren’t going to stand the test of time. It’s probably all the chanpagne-fuelled decisions that give new year’s resolutions such a bad press! But iff you have made a decision to save more money, get stressed less, lose some weight or do something else meaningful then making a new year’s resolution could be the key to success! They’re a socially acceptable excuse for doing the things you’ve always dreamed of! But if that is you, don’t forget what the Scranton researchers discovered…

Failure is normal, and success means being nice to yourself!

I wonder if that could be a new motto for life!?

Somehow I don’t think it would stand up in a court of law…

Listen Officer, didn't anyone tell you that failure is perfectly normal?


.

Research Paper:

Norcross JC, Mrykalo MS, Blagys MD. Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. J Clin Psychol. 2002 Apr;58(4):397-405.

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

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