New Year's Resolutions: Blessing or Curse?

NY Resolutions

I have been known to say that there are no bad sources of motivation. But I can make an exception for New Year's Resolutions. Why, you ask? Well, here are my reasons…even if you didn't ask.

The reason I say that there are no bad sources of motivation is that some degree of motivation is needed to get started. After all, you can't get to the end if you haven't gotten started. 

It's just that once you get started you need to find the right kind of motivation to keep going. In health most people show up motivated because they have had a scare of some kind; a personal experience that provoked some distress. This type of motivation in which you have negative feelings (e.g., “Now that I have developed high blood pressure I am worried about having a stroke; that is what killed my dad” can be powerful. But once you follow your health care provider’s advice, you no longer feel distressed. As a matter of fact you might feel happy with yourself for achieving the recommendation of your health care provider. Since your motivation was based on feeling bad, and you now feel good, you have no motivation, so you stop the behaviour. 

Long-term change requires positive sources of motivation, like health, commitment, self-esteem and feelings of control. In my view, as a Health Psychologist, the role of the health care provider is to see you when you are motivated by distress and help you develop positive motivators to continue with changes once you no longer feel distressed.

What does this have to do with New Year's Resolutions? I think the realistic chances that positive motivation will result from a New Year’s Resolution is about equivalent to a snowball's chance of survival in Hades. Let's look at the anatomy of the New Year's Resolution to see all of the landmines that an unsuspecting soul might walk on. 

The magnitude of the New Year's Resolution is truly impressive. It must be the most natural eruption of motivation you will ever see, and at least as reliable as Old Faithful. It is staggering to think about how much money is spent on Spandex, home exercise equipment and gym memberships. And why? 

Lesson #1: People feel bad about their behaviour and fall in to the societal trap of setting a resolution with little thought and often much money. I suspect you have participated at some point in a conversation that started with, “What is your New Year's Resolution this year?” It seems we have to have one to fit in. Would it surprise you to know that when people have personal, meaningful reasons to change, success is more likely? This is because your personal values will carry you through the tough times. If we fit into the cultural norm of the annual Resolution we miss the opportunity to ask ourselves questions like: 

  • Why do I want to achieve this goal? 
  • How hard am I willing to work when the going gets tough?
  • Is now the best time to start working toward this goal? 

Would it surprise you to know that the answers to these questions are ingredients in successful change?

Lesson #2: People have a tendency to set really big goals, usually having to do with weight, exercise or smoking because the New Year follows one of the biggest food frenzies of the year. Because people feel really bad, they tend to set really big goals. Would it surprise you to know that success is often associated with smaller, doable goals than larger “I want it all and I want it now” goals? If we could set more reasonable goals, we might do better.

Lesson #3: We tend to expect too much from our resolutions. I have heard the following too many times to count and I am sad every time I hear it: “If only I could achieve this goal then everything would be so much better.”  Really? Everything? Would it surprise you to know that the more realistic a person’s expectations are, the more likely that they will sustain behaviour? 

Lesson #4: When people begin a New Year's Resolution they go at it with a vengeance. We live in a “go big or go home” society and this gets played out in spades with New Year's Resolutions. However, most people cannot sustain this pace and they end up exhausted, sore and craving their old ways. Would it surprise you to know that moderate goals are more likely to build success and help a people develop the confidence to sustain their behaviours in the face of barriers? 

So, for all of these reasons I think New Year's Resolutions are more trouble than they are worth. If you are interested in change, awesome. Bring your best! But I am not convinced the New Year's Resolution brings out the best in people.

Dr. Michael Vallis, Psychologist NSHA Central Zone
Associate Professor, Dalhousie University