Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work and a Better Alternative

Does anyone really keep their New Year’s resolutions? I’m sure there’s that one person you know who has kept theirs perfectly and probably makes you feel crummy about caving in on yours one week in.

Here’s the deal: classic New Year’s resolutions are the worst. Not just because I say so, but also because they promote a premise for behavior change that sets you up for failure. Of course the idea of starting a new habit or goal alongside the New Year is a nice thought. But few people succeed at this, and here’s why:

New Year’s resolutions are often unrealistic. Trying to combat several years of a bad habit out of the blue when January 1st rolls around is incompatible with the brain. Sure, it is possible to quit or start things cold turkey, but it’s difficult. The brain adjusts to patterns of behavior and they can be hard to change without some realistic goals, pre-planning, and help. Attempting a goal with no plan is a recipe for failure.

Also, resolutions are usually too vague. Many times I hear resolutions that sound something like “I’m going to be happier this year, “ or “I’m going to be a better parent.” Good for you! These are good goals. But what are you going to do to actually see that come to fruition? Give yourself specificity.

Here’s the bottom line: without a plan, you can’t achieve a goal, and without a goal, you can’t achieve a plan. If you want a resolution to stick, do more than just get an idea. Start with your idea, then create a specific goal, and finally make a plan. This is the primary reason New Year’s resolutions fail. They rarely do more than someone conjuring up a vague idea about something they would like to change.

But this upcoming year, I want to offer you more than a simplistic way of crafting the perfect New Year’s resolution. Instead, I want to give you some ideas on how you can find a more effective way to approach your goal and be more successful at achieving greater happiness and contentment.

First, anticipate and dream. Solid research has found across multiple studies that there is greater joy in anticipation than the actual event. For example, many people experience higher levels of happiness when they are planning and anticipating a vacation than they actually do on the vacation itself (Rosenbloom, 2014). Professor Dunn from the University of British Columbia and a happiness researcher notes that building up and savoring the anticipation process by researching your adventure suggests that you assume your vacation will be amazing and causes you to look forward to it. There is joy in the planning process. “We’re less likely to be bothered by [the things that go wrong on our trip] if we build up our expectations ahead of time,” Professor Dunn said. “So go ahead and assume it’s going to be wonderful” (Rosenbloom, 2014).

This year allow yourself to anticipate what you want to change or happen. Maybe it’s a dream trip. Maybe it’s a healthier lifestyle. Maybe it’s being a better parent. But before you can put an effective plan together, you must anticipate and visualize the end result or experience.

When we anticipate, we are allowing ourselves to dream, and dreaming is good for the spirit. When we dream, we are acknowledging something we desire, something that is important to us, and something that we find valuable. Too many people don’t dream enough. I mean really dream.

A dear friend of mine and I recently had a dream to move to New York City to pursue our own individual goals. My goal was to pursue a doctorate degree in psychology along with embracing the fullness and culture of the city. It might seem like a far-fetched dream to some, but we took it seriously. We scheduled a “dreaming weekend” where we went to Breckinridge and spent the weekend dreaming and putting an action plan together to see if we could make our New York dream actualize. We are still in the dreaming and planning process, and I look forward to letting you know how it turns out! But I can tell you this: I experienced so much joy during that dreaming process (and I still do). It opened me up to anticipate something I truly desire and want. And dreaming can have the same effect on you. 

Secondly, pursue and plan. Dreaming and anticipating do little good if you don’t actively pursue a plan. This part is attractive to many because there is an element of control here. However, research on happiness has uncovered an unfortunate truth: there is a genetic link to happiness. That is, some people are capable of feeling happier than others by nature. But, there is a positive finding in this as well. That same research discovered that we have control over about fifty-percent of our happiness level despite our genetics (Nauert, 2008). So even though you might have a genetic predisposition to feel gloomy and a bit more unhappy from time to time, there is something you can do to improve your situation—you have fifty-percent of the control. So take that, genetics.

One of those things you can do is actively pursue the goals and dreams you have for yourself. Put together a plan. What do you need to be a better parent this year? Is it some stress management work? Is it more free time pursuing things you enjoy? Where do you feel yourself lacking that is contributing to the problem? Be willing to look at yourself openly. If you can’t see what needs to change, or are defensive about your shortcomings, then your situation is unlikely to improve. Put together an active plan to get there and pursue what it is that you desire. Make the planning process fun. Do something out of the ordinary. Set aside a night during the week to dream and put together your plan. Go check into a hotel for a weekend. Make it special. You have control here. And isn’t that what we all really want on occasion—control over our lives and actions?

Finally, involve others in your dreams and goals. One interesting finding in the research on anticipation and happiness found that there is a difference between what we anticipate and the effect it has on our happiness. For example, there is increased happiness when we anticipate an experience like a vacation, concert, or event. When we anticipate a purchase such as a new laptop or car, the anticipation can often lead to impatience. Studies found that anticipating an experience creates more happiness and less impatience (Herbert, 2014). Interesting, right? We can speculate as to what causes this difference, but I think I know.

Experiences usually involve others which creates stronger and often more positive memories about which we can later relish and reminisce. Relationships matter and are one of the strongest indicators of one’s personal happiness (Grohol, 2010). So when you want to dream or anticipate something, include others in your plan. Take that class with a friend. Have someone join you for your workout plan. Not only will you most likely stick with it longer, you’ll also be happier during the process because you’re sharing the experience with someone you care about.

This year, don’t give in to the simplistic and cliché resolutions. Instead, do something that creates substantial change and happiness. Dream this year. Dream really big. Dream, and then anticipate your dream while you pursue a realistic plan that includes others you love. That is a recipe for a resolution that can stick and be more fulfilling. Then you can be that friend who seems to uphold his or her resolutions perfectly.

Happy New Year.

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 Grohol, J. (2010). Five reliable findings from happiness research. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/04/10/5-reliable-findings-from-happiness-research.

Herbert, W. (2014). Anticipation: The psychology of waiting in line. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wray-herbert/anticipation-the-psycholo_b_5588654.html.

Nauert, R. (2008). Genetic link to happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/03/05/genetic-link-to-happiness/2003.html.

Rosenbloom, S. (2014). What a great trip! And I’m not even there yet. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/travel/what-a-great-trip-and-im-not-even-there-yet.html?_r=0.