The science behind New Year's Resolutions... and why we so often fail to keep them

Intuitively, a new beginning seems to increase people’s beliefs that they can do better.

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As we emerged from our New Year’s Eve celebrations with pounding heads and a slight sense of loathing for our late-2017 selves, many of us will have jumped at an excuse for some annual self-improvement. Whether it’s quitting smoking or exercising more, once a year we’re seemingly willing to overlook mounting evidence that less than 50 per cent of people will have kept to their resolutions in six months.

In 2013, researchers Dai, Milkman and Riis at University of Pennsylvania found that “temporal landmarks increase the subjective distance between a person’s current self and past self”. Essentially, the sense of psychological disassociation brought on by a new year makes it easier to separate perceptions of past failure and imperfection from current aspirations – explaining why so many of us use the changing of the calendars as an excuse to set lofty goals.

Not only did they discover an increase in those taking up diets and gym memberships after the holiday season’s end, but also at the onset of a new month, or even in the days surrounding a birthday. Intuitively, a new beginning seems to increase people’s beliefs that they can do better. Yet despite the widespread practice of making New Year Resolutions, there remains relatively little research into whether there’s actually an optimal time to begin attempts to better ourselves, or even whether the concept is helpful at all.

“The beginning of the New Year is an important time symbolically – people reflect on their values, their desires, and what they want to change,” says Dr.Susan Michie, the head of the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change. “But, when people get to a threshold, people aren’t very satisfied, but then it could be a chance event or a conversation, something kind of tips you over, into thinking right, I’m now going to take this on.”

Historians believe that the practice of New Year resolutions originated from the Babylonian Kingdom, where the start of the harvest season was marked by Akitu, a 12-day festival in which communities would fast and pray to their gods for better fortunes in the year ahead. Then in 46 B.C., Roman emperor Julius Caesar decided to honour the two-faced god Janus by ruling that the New Year began on 1 January, when he encouraged his subjects to reflect on their transgressions and commit to improvement for the following year.

Fast-forward to 1740, and John Wesley, the father of Methodism, encouraged the same during his midnight New Year’s Eve services. Since then, the practice has spread all over the world, becoming as much of a tradition as the annual countdown to midnight.

While the principle remains the same, ambitions have undoubtedly changed significantly over the past 3,000 years. Looking forward to 2018, 12 per cent of Americans polled by The Marist Opinion Institue reported their main resolution was simply “being a better person” – closely followed by weight loss, ditching cigarettesand eating healthier.

These changes fit quite neatly into concepts like self-help and wellness, which have seemingly accelerated in popularity thanks to self-improvement manuals with catchy titles, like The Paleo Solution or The Kind Diet. With so many looking to focus on clean eating, curbing addictive behaviours and exercise; it’s no surprise that a whole industry of motivational apps and guides has sprung up to keep everybody on track.

Of course, self-help books and faux-inspirational social media posts can’t exactly counteract human nature. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, found that just 12 per cent of people can say they've stuck to their New Year’s Resolutions one year on.  

“There are different influences in terms of what makes somebody make a resolution and what makes it stick. People may make resolutions because of external triggers, or social pressure from what everybody is doing at that time,” adds Dr Michie.

She recommends acting like a behavioural scientist in order to make resolutions stick. “A lot of people think it's easy, it's just about willpower. But if it’s not observable or measurable, can you really tell if there’s a change? People have to construct their own behavioural experiments to see whether their plan has worked or not.

“You have to start, then find ways to make work on your resolution in the least effortful and least disruptive to your daily routine, and build in some kind of reward. If it doesn’t work, you have to think about why it hasn’t succeeded.” 

Despite this simple advice, making and sticking to resolutions can often seem doomed to failure. Even the first incidence of the term “new year’s resolutions” from the anonymous author of a newspaper column titled ‘Friday Lecture’ in 1813, reveals that humanity might just be change-averse.

“There are multitudes of people...who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”

Some things might never change.