How to keep your New Year's resolution: notes from a researcher in happiness


By Dr Ivo Ponocny
Dean of the PhD in Business and Socioeconomic Sciences at MODUL University Vienna

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? The chances are you did. Some researchers estimate the percentage of people making habit changing decisions in the New Year is around 50%.

But why do we put ourselves through it? After all, according to Business Insider approximately 80% of resolutions will fail by the second week of February.

You might have read how you can keep your resolutions by setting so-called smart goals. This includes creating reachable and measurable targets in a realistic time frame, evaluating your success and tracking your progress – possibly by using one of the many smartphone apps available. Others say people should be much kinder to themselves. After all, can people really change to the extent we expect ourselves to each January 1st?

Both approaches to New Year’s resolutions are valid, and self-improvement should always be encouraged – be that mental or physical. This annual behavior can actually be quite reassuring from a human perspective. Even in the face of probable failure our intention to better ourselves keeps coming back year after year. At their roots, most New Year’s resolutions are positive changes; more time for the family, more time for enjoying life, more exercising, healthier nutrition or a reduction in drinking and smoking. If with each passing year we are reminded to act a little better, then there should be no objection to that!

We all have to start somewhere, and the few resolutions that do succeed begin like all the others – with the will power to begin.

Will power - obviously this is the key to whether a resolution fails or succeeds, otherwise implementing one’s intention would not be such an undertaking. The aspect of will power which I want to emphasize is the well-known fact that humans are terrible affective forecasters. This means we struggle to picture ourselves in another emotional state. On New Year’s Eve, we are fully convinced that our solemn mood will still be present when it comes to actually implementing our noble ideas. We do not feel the daily hassles which keep us off the grand activities we strive for. With all the best intentions of the New Year coursing through us we can hardly imagine the need to simply relax after a hard day’s work, instead of going to the gym for the third time that week. Likewise in the midst of our routines, we do not have the emotional support from Auld Lang Syne or the Blue Danube waltz to remind us of our original pledge.

So if you are (like 80% of people) considering throwing in the towel on your resolutions, consider this: you have already taken the first step to making a real change. Keep showing commitment to who you want to be. Continually rethink your plans and adapt them to your daily restrictions and opportunities.