Psychology Explains New Year Resolutions, Hits and Misses

Can Psychology explain why most New Year Resolutions fail and how to keep them?

Posted Dec 31, 2017

New psychological research explains just why most people fail their New Year Resolutions and suggests a novel way to ensure you don’t end up having to make the same New Year Resolutions yet again next year.

Many surveys suggest we are terrible at keeping New Year Resolutions, but there is something so emotionally resonant about the possibility of turning over a new leaf, combined with our awareness that we should really lead better lives, means making New Year Resolutions is an almost universal activity, just as failing to follow through with them, is practically as popular.

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Source: Pexels. CC0 License ✓ Free for personal and commercial use ✓ No attribution required

Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago have just published some new research investigating New Year Resolutions, and found 55.2% of resolutions were health related (exercise: 31.3%, eat healthy: 10.4%, have healthier habits: 13.5%), 34.4% were work related (save: 20.8%, get out of debt: 12.5%, learn something: 0%, get organized: 1.0%), and 5.2% were social goals (spend time with family: 2.1%, help others: 0%, enjoy life: 3.1%).

The study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that participants believed both enjoyment and importance mattered for how successful they would be at sticking with their resolution in the future.

Contrary to what participants believed, the researchers found that only enjoyment predicted long-term persistence. In other words, we make a fundamental psychological mistake in assuming that we will stick to the plan to attain the goal just because something is clearly important to do.

Instead what really matters is how much we can take pleasure from our initial efforts to start a new, for example, fitness regime, or a change in diet.

New psychological perspectives suggest we need to also understand better why we tend not to look after ourselves on a daily basis, in other words, why are New Year Resolutions necessary in the first place?

Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola, from the Department of Kinesiology (the study of body movement) at the University of Maryland, USA, has just published a new investigation of why we are so awful at sticking to fitness resolutions and health goals, in the Journal of Nature and Science.

The investigation points out that various surveys suggest only around a fifth of us get enough regular exercise, and yet our lifestyle, which is controllable by us, accounts for 53% of the ten leading causes for years of potential life lost before age 65.

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Source: CC0 Creative Commons Free for commercial use No attribution required. Pixabay

The other factors are our environment (21.8%), our biology (16.4%), and the health care system (9.8%). In other words, for all the space that health services occupied the news headlines over the last year, in fact statistically they play only a 10% part in determining our health before the age of 65.

If we want to change our lifestyle to improve our chances of a long healthy life, what is required at one level is surprisingly simple, according to Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola. He points out that lifestyle boils down to just four key health behaviors: regular exercise, non-smoking, healthy diet, and moderate alcohol use. According to this analysis, if people followed just these simple strategies throughout their lives, they would live, on average, seven years longer.

Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola’s new investigation entitled, ‘Conscious-Nonconscious Processing Explains Why Some People Exercise but Most Don’t’, declares that understanding why we don’t work-out when we should, boils down to grasping what happens when we start having to think about the decision to exercise.

Just how much of this decision involves conscious wrestling with yourself over what you ought to do, as opposed to what you really want to do, will predict how likely you are to keep your fitness resolve.

Once you get going and start to establish a set of health routines, these then begin to operate below conscious awareness, so you don’t have to think too hard about them. Then the benefits of exerercise become a positive feedback loop; physical activity makes us feel better about ourselves and directly improves mental health, well-being and brain function.

For example, learning new motor skills as in taking up a new sport, actually increases brain gray matter. Physical activity boosts the size of hippocampus, the part of the brain devoted to memory, and thereby improves recollection function and may even delay or prevent dementia.

So why then do all these medical and mental benefits for a more active lifestyle not translate into more rational choosing what is the best for us?

It boils down to an issue over freedom to do what we want in our leisure time.

Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola points out that for most people, daily exercise has to be undertaken after work. It therefore competes with other leisure activities, leading to a mental battle in the choice of what you do with your free time. Given that a sense of liberty is the defining characteristic of leisure, anything that threatens that sense of autonomy leads to strong psychological resistance.

Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola contends that typically, when people come home from work, it is the first time during the day when they feel, “it is my time to do whatever I want”, and therefore they do not want to be told what to do (i.e., you have to go for a run). This is the last moment where they want to engage in making difficult decisions.

For occasional exercisers and non-exercisers, choosing to exercise at this precise moment is mentally straining and undermines their sense of freedom, while other common leisure activities (e.g., TV watching) do not. The result is that the ‘law of least effort’ is followed while fulfilling the fundamental need for autonomy, making the choice of couch-potato a formidable psychological obstacle for would-be exercisers.

Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola argues that important health-promoting behaviors such as exercise cannot be perceived and presented as choices to be selected from a host of leisure activities; rather, they have to be seen as activities that have to be undertaken regardless of conditions.

The psychological trick here is for exercise to become a forced "choice".

What this means practically is referred to by Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola as the systematic construction of an ‘exercise infrastructure’.

This may mean, for example, altering your environment so that it encourages you to take exercise. It might mean having your gym clothes laid out on your couch so they are a nasty reminder of what you are supposed to be doing instead of watching TV, or choosing a time of the day where there is less competition from other activities you prefer to do – maybe take exercise first thing in the morning or at lunch time. Or get other people to go running with, so that knock on the door makes it more difficult to stay in watching the TV.

With a sufficient number of repeats, past these initial hurdles, exercisers can advance to the point where a permanent choice is made to exercise regardless of daily predicaments.

Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola contends that once a high level of habitualness has been attained, it is difficult to shake off habits.

In short, habits are very stubborn.

This is good for regular exercisers but bad for avid TV watchers; if the latter want to become regular exercisers then they have to become more conscious of the choices they are making during their leisure time and start ingraining the new habit by making their environment force them to take up the new habit (hide the TV remote) and once the new habit has been established, it will become easier to stick to the new routine because this behavior can become as unconscious a choice as watching TV once was.

The art of success in New Year’s resolutions, seems to be, according to Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola, to become more consciously aware of your habits and choices when they are bad ones, use this elevated consciousness to make changes that are initially difficult, produce an exercise infrastructure around you, and if you persist for long enough, these conscious decisions will become unconscious healthy habits.

The other key to success in New Year Resolutions comes from that other new study conducted by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, entitled, ‘Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals’

The study found immediate rewards such as enjoyment, predicted persistence at New Year’s resolutions, whereas delayed rewards did not.

Obtaining enough shorter term pleasures from new changes mean they can become pleasurable habits in themselves. Then the new fitness regime can become as unconscious a habit as watching TV once was.

Choose to play tennis if you enjoy sport as a way of getting fit, rather than pound down the gym because it seems better for you in the longer term. Doing something merely because it seems good for you, as opposed to having no short term pleasure payoff, is unlikely to work.

It’s therefore the journey from conscious decision to unconscious habit, through finding new pleasures as opposed to sticking to old habitual ones, that is crucial to success in New Year Resolutions. 

References

Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals. Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2017 Feb;43(2):151-162

Conscious-Nonconscious Processing Explains Why Some People Exercise but Most Don’t. Seppo E. Iso-Ahola. Journal of Nature and Science (JNSCI), Vol.3, No.6, e384, 2017.