The psychology and science behind new year’s resolutions. Do they really work?


By Shannon Garrido, Editor-in-chief

As we get closer and closer to the end of this year and try our best to prepare for another, many embrace the practice of setting New Year’s resolutions. After this year of insurrections, COVID variants, and environmental disasters, it seems New Year’s Eve is the perfect time to put our best foot forward. But do these resolutions actually hold any merit? And if they do, why do we wait until Jan. 1 to make them?  

It can be argued that New Year’s resolutions are simply just a crock of shit. Statistics differ— some say only 8 percent of those who make resolutions will actually meet them, while others say 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February. Either way, it’s ironic people still indulge in these resolutions despite the high probability they won’t keep them. 

Like many, I am guilty of making, but not meeting resolutions. During the countdown to the new year, I have been known to indulge in superstitious rituals like eating twelve purple grapes—each grape represents a resolution for each month— or writing down my resolutions and burning them at midnight, signifying that the resolution is “written in the stars” and therefore cannot be broken. But none of these rituals have ever actually helped me go through with my resolutions, yet I set a new one every year anyway. Why?

Research conducted by Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis at the Wharton School break down the psychology of a resolution based on a temporal milestone––meaning that when people want to produce a concrete change in their lives they often find a prominent timeline to measure progress. 

Whether that timeline begins with the start of a semester or a new day, the theory is that people choose specific start dates in hopes of reaching a satisfying completion. Dai, Milkman, and Riis refer to this as “the fresh-start effect,” which most people still do. For three consecutive years starting in 2016, U.S. polls reported that 44 percent of participants are likely or very likely to make a New Year’s resolution. 

This makes sense, especially in recent years where it seems that every new year brings a new nightmare sequence of political instability, economic distress, environmental catastrophes, and more. People just want to feel in control of their own well-being, and when it seems like the world is in flames, there is no better time to take control than the start of a new year.

Research funded by the Department of Psychology in Stockholm University claims that New Year’s resolutions normally focus on changing behavior to accomplish a goal that benefits physical and mental health. This increases the likelihood for individual and communal success. The most popular resolutions almost always revolve around physical appearance or health (33 percent) and the second most popular category is weight loss (20 percent). 

According to the same study, people who set resolutions for themselves at the beginning of a new year truly have the motivation to go through with their goals, yet most don’t make it to completion. 

This fact isn’t surprising to me. Our priorities and motivations shift constantly and setting a resolution sometimes creates added pressure that if a resolution is broken even for one day, you’ve failed. 

However, the main issue with New Year’s resolutions is that no matter how specific they are, the time frame is much too long. Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and college psychology instructor, writes in Psychology Today that it’s not a lack of willpower that leads most people to fail their New Year’s resolutions, but the fact that they start on Jan. 1. 

The process of change is different for everybody, though. Morin points out that in order to actually go through with personal goals, a person must navigate different stages–– this includes precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. 

Precontemplation is denying there is a problem while having it pointed out to you. Contemplation refers to the thought process and reviewing of possible pros and cons of the resolution. The next steps involve preparation and action, while the final stage should be maintenance, or figuring out how to stick to your change over time.

According to Morin, if people base their resolutions on a set calendar date, they will not be able to make changes to improve their lives. For most people, change won’t occur simply because the clock strikes twelve. 

Not only are New Year’s resolutions known to fail, but also by nature they do not work because they rely on preconceived dates that don’t offer any motivation other than timeliness. 

You are not going to suddenly find motivation to eat healthily or go out more because you told yourself you had to once midnight finally hits. That’s not how our brains work. This is also why we can’t beat ourselves up when our resolutions don’t go as planned. 

Life is all about balance, and there is no point in setting ourselves up for failure every year because we believe this new year is going to be the magic wand that fixes that ick we’ve pointed out to ourselves forever. 

Change takes time and energy that won’t come overnight. If we want to create real sustainable change this year, we should recognize our issues when they are pointed out and use that motivation to do something about it. Not to mention, we need to take it easy on ourselves. No one expects us to get it right all the time. 

If you don’t want to change today, you won’t— so don’t force it. If you want to be more involved at your job, don’t wait until the first of January to do it. Get to work now. If you feel disconnected from your friends and family, for the love of God don’t wait until new years to send them that ‘I miss you’ text. Do it now. 2022 could be a great year. It’s all about intent and perspective.