New Year Resolutions: Tips to Focus on the Positive

New Year's Resolutions - photo of empty piece of paper with bullets ready to be filled in

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Posted in: Hot Topics, You & Your Family

Topics: Healthy Living

There’s this guy Sisyphus.

I feel like he invented the New Year’s resolution.

You know Sisyphus—he’s the guy who works so hard to push that stupid boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down again at the end of his hard work. You’d think he’d have learned after all these years, but there he is, at the bottom of the hill, trying again and again.

“Today,” he says with resolve, “will be different. Today I will get that boulder to the top of the hill.”

In our psyches, Sisyphus shows up pretty predictably around December 27th. If you go easy on yourself, maybe he waits until December 30th. But he’s there. He’s knocking on the door of your well-intentioned ego. I bet he’s glad to take a break from his own fruitless toils.

“You can do it,” he whispers. “You can lose that weight. You can drink less alcohol. You can exercise more.”

I bet you he’s smiling. I don’t think he’s smiling because he’s mean or anything; I just think he’s glad to have some company.

So, how many times do we fail in these New Year’s resolutions?

Well, how does Sisyphus fare?

Expectations and the Process of Change

Researchers note that New Year’s resolutions are typically grounded in motivations to change our perceived vices—our addictions, our “bad” behaviors, our so-called “destructive flaws.” We know what’s good for us, we just can’t get it right.

Luckily for us, Sisyphus didn’t read this research. It turns out that almost half of us succeed in our goals. We don’t hear about those successes so much (except maybe on late-night infomercials), but it’s true: we manage to keep about 50% of our self-improvement mandates. Don’t forget, though, about the other half of the glass. If you end up chasing that boulder back down the hill, that New Year’s glass is half empty for you. And, as it turns out, we chase an awful lot of boulders—nearly 1 in 2 of us expect to lose our momentum before the end of February. Hence, those same darn resolutions reveal themselves again come December. Usually we fail about now, say mid-January.

But this doesn’t stop people from making resolutions or encouraging their kids to do the same. In 2019 Clay Center survey of 750 parents nationwide, 6 out of 10 parents said they encouraged their kids to make New Year’s resolutions.

This seeming exercise in at least partial futility begs a fundamental question: Is “bad” behavior so hard to change? We try to raise our kids to correct misbehavior; why can’t we do it ourselves?

This query is, understandably, the focus of a lot of research. We expect more than is reasonable. We harbor false or exaggerated predictions. We assume (and we all know the dangers of assumptions) that change will be easier this year, or more predictable this year, or that we’ll somehow have changed enough that the resolution will finally be within our grasp. Here’s the kicker, though, and it’s an important one: we truly believe that we’ll succeed. We’re not actively lying to ourselves.

Psychologists Janet Polivy and Peter Herman call this a “false-hope syndrome,” an exaggeration of our expectations for change, inevitably followed by the forlorn shutting down of our previously high aspirations.

But there is controversy as well. John Norcross and his associates suggest that the process of making a resolution is perhaps the most important step in behavioral change. Sprinkle this process with some select and admirable behavioral traits—self-efficacy, maintaining a course of action and readiness to change—and we stand a good chance of achieving our goals. Typically, he notes, we meet these goals through positive reinforcement from others, and avoidance of past behaviors.

Being human is hard, though. Avoiding past behaviors is like learning to swim. It doesn’t really come naturally to anyone, though some of us are quicker to learn than others

Resolutions a Different Way

So, how about we look at resolutions in an entirely different way? Let’s turn the whole thing on its head.

What if we take note of our already achieved positive traits, and focus on making them better? This seems a better recipe for success than our yearly tendencies towards self-flagellation.

Try these resolutions on for size, and see if they fit:

“I will take greater pleasure in my partner, children, parents, and friends.”

“I will increase my caring of and sensitivity toward others.”

“I will further my dedication to social and individual justice.”

“I will emphasize my gratitude for the blessings in my life.”

“I will celebrate the times that I make a positive difference in my life and in the lives of others.”

“I will spend more time and energy on the things that make me happy.”

We all have impressive attitudes and activities that promote our health and well-being, and that foster the same in others. Positive thinking enhances relationships. Optimism promotes resilience. We have within us the capacity for creative thinking and personal fulfillment; these processes are hardwired into one big anti-Sisyphusian feedback loop. Positive emotions promote positive thinking, and vice versa.

This is, of course, easier said than done. It can be a trap to resolve that we must simply work harder to think positively. Lots of the time, that approach by itself allows Sisyphus to win.

Look: these are scary times. Our kids and young adults are in the midst of a youth mental health epidemic with depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, substance use, and suicide skyrocketing. The causes postulated are many, and this trend began long before COVID. There are no simplistic reasons, but many young people are not optimistic about the future, and we, as parents and caregivers need to be bastions of hope, promotion of wellbeing, and positivity.

Perhaps this time around, our New Year’s resolutions can emerge from a reflection on the year gone by, and a sincere desire to make things better for both ourselves and others.

This year let’s focus on the brightness within us. Let’s resolve to enhance and build on what is good, fair, and admirable.

At the end of the day, we’re much more likely to approach something positive than we are to walk away from something negative. We see this all the time as parents. Let’s parent ourselves this year.

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Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Youn...

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.