The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

The Joy of New Year's Resolutions

New Year's resolutions are not about change, but an expression of hope.

Most advice about New Year's Resolutions misses the point. How to enjoy yours, guilt-free.

The average New Year's resolution is abandoned before the Christmas credit card bills arrive. Whether or not you think this is a problem depends on how you view resolutions.

There is no shortage of experts offering advice on how to stick to your resolutions, or at least create resolutions that are easier to stick to. Heck, I'm usually one of them, chiming in with evidence-based suggestions to "choose small goals" and "enlist social support."

This is good advice if you really want to change a behavior. But as it turns out, most New Year's resolutions are not about behavior change. They are an expression of hope.

Just like the celebratory glass of champagne and midnight kiss, the New Year's resolution is more about instant gratification than self-control. Research has shown that as soon as you pledge to change, you get a powerful boost in mood. The bigger the resolution, the better you feel. Immediately! You feel more hopeful and in control. The mood boost can even defy logic. For example, starting a diet makes people feel physically stronger and just deciding to exercise makes people feel taller.

There is nothing wrong with hope, especially when you embrace it as an emotional experience in the present. The pleasure you get from a New Year's resolution does not depend on tomorrow's follow-through. The vast majority of people who make resolutions don't intend to purse them with the energy and commitment of someone ready to make an important change. The whole point of a resolution is to acknowledge the existence of an ideal self you could slip into -- if you ever really wanted to.

So go ahead and describe your ideal self. Would she give up shopping sprees and cut back on smoking? Would he wake up earlier and exercise more regularly? Maybe remember to say "I love you" every day, and never forget to recycle? Enjoy acknowledging the potential for change and the core values at the heart of the resolution. And if you find yourself sneaking in resolutions that make you feel worse about yourself, cross it off the list. "Shoulds" shouldn't make the list; other people's ideas of who you should be and what you should do can go right in the delete file.

When you're at it, take the expression of hope one step further. The New Year is an opportunity to revel in other positive emotions, like gratitude, pride, and anticipation. Once you're done imagining the possibilities of the best you, try one or more of these rituals to ring in the future:

List your favorite memories and triumphs of 2009, including the big surprises, the small moments of pleasure, and the challenges you faced with courage (even if things didn't turn out the way you hoped for).

Let yourself imagine future events or experiences that will bring you pleasure or satisfaction, and make a list of at least 10 such things to look forward to in 2010. Think small and predictable, but nevertheless enjoyable (such as new episodes of a favorite TV show), as well as big dreams that you can work toward (such as finishing writing your novel, or a trip you'd like to take).

Make a list of people, places, roles, and experiences you are grateful for as you head into 2010. Then pick at least one that you are going to give yourself permission to enjoy more thoroughly -- whether it's spending more time on an activity or just taking the time to savor what you have.

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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