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Decoding the Psychology of New Year's Resolutions

The tradition of New Year's resolutions has been around for a long time, put in place for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do better in the coming year. Most people make these resolutions only for themselves, focusing purely on self improvement, which may explain why they seem so hard to follow through on. Research shows that about half of Americans make New Year's resolutions, so we can see it's a sought after practice. It’s been proven that people see the New Years as a blank slate - an opportunity to “get things right”, and to hold on to some sense of control over what’s happening in their lives. 

So what’s the psychology behind feeling the need to set these resolutions? Especially when they often fail? The answer is that goal setting is rooted in the human desire to constantly improve our character, as well as the symbolic significance that comes with starting a new year. The beginning of a new year serves as a natural transition point, which prompts people to reflect on their lives. The social and cultural influence of these resolutions can create a sense of accountability and support for those trying to make a positive change. However, lots of people can feel pressure around this time of the year to conform to popular trends, struggle with the comparison of peers on social media, fear judgment, crave external validation, fold from the pressure for quick results , and stigmatize failure. For example, if a particular health or fitness goal is widely promoted, people may be more inclined to set similar goals, even if it doesn’t personally resonate with them. Social media often only showcases people’s achievements, and society as a whole tends to place value on certain resolutions deemed socially acceptable, placing judgment on those who chose non-mainstream goals, leading to conformity rather than pursuing one's true desires. 

Some people may set resolutions with the sole purpose of gaining approval or recognition from the people around them. To top it all off, society's stigmatization of failure can turn something that’s supposed to be positive into something that’s daunting and unachievable. 

Let’s explore the most popular resolutions people tend to set for themselves: in 2023, the top five goals to set were as follows: 1. To exercise more 2. To eat healthier 3. To lose weight 4. To save more money 5. To spend more time with family and friends. And 2022, 2021, 2020, etc. seems to follow almost identically in these footsteps. These are likely influenced by social pressures and the influence of the media, and the toxic trait society has ingrained in our brains that you have to always be thinner to look better. Yet when resolutions like this are set based on external pressures or societal expectations rather than real personal values, people begin to lack the motivation needed for long-term commitment. The desire for immediate results may outweigh the perceived benefits of long-term resolutions, which can make it challenging to stay committed. Understanding and addressing these psychological challenges can enhance the likelihood of actually maintaining one's New Year’s resolutions, and picking ones that actually matter and have the potential to last. 

Instead of relying solely on the New Year to make goals for oneself, many people have now started to adopt year-round goal setting approaches that promote continuous improvement. Everything from monthly assessments, habit formation, intention setting, vision board creation, and micro goals creates a more dynamic and sustainable framework for personal growth that allows for continuous improvement throughout the entire year.  When interviewed on how she successfully achieves her new resolutions, Mia Schlenker shared that she enforces her simple and tangible ones by habit stacking, “habit stacking is introducing a new habit into your routine while simultaneously doing something you already do on a regular basis and doesn’t disrupt your pre-established routine.”  Furthermore, on the emotional and psychological effects of resolution outcomes, she shares that she feels more accomplished when she feels like she is being productive in pursuing her goals; “feeling accomplished in those areas not only is positive reinforcement for me, but has an effect on how I act and who I am, and makes for healthier lifestyle changes.” Mack Bellomo also shares that knowing she’s following her goal, even if it’s only a little one, is beneficial to her everyday life and very rewarding. 

In conclusion, the tradition of New Year’s resolutions reflects the natural human instinct to self improve, and the symbolic significance of starting anew. Despite positive intentions, societal pressures and the fear of failure often challenge the maintenance of these goals. Influenced by social media trends, people’s resolutions may not align with personal values, which makes long-term commitment difficult. Beyond traditional approaches, many now embrace year-round strategies like habit stacking and monthly assessments, fostering continuous and realistic personal growth. As we saw from some of our Stevenson seniors, emphasizing integrating goals into daily routines, finding joy in small milestones, and contributing to a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle adopts this holistic mindset, rather than relying solely on New Year’s pressure, can lead to more fulfilling and achievable personal growth.


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