As we embark on a new year, people worldwide are establishing their New Year's resolutions. Although resolutions may be time-honored tradition, many resist the urge as an endeavor that is bound to fail. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the psychology behind New Year’s resolutions and what helps people to achieve their goals. 

According to a recent survey conducted by Forbes Health, the attitudes of 1,000 U.S. adults toward their New Year's resolutions and the types of goals they prioritize have undergone a significant shift. 

Although fitness and weight loss remain popular for the new year, 36% of participants expressed a commitment to improving their mental health. In fact, 55% of participants acknowledged that mental health should be given equal significance as physical well-being in their resolutions for the coming year. So, as we move into 2024, prioritizing mental well-being may be the focus for many.


The psychology behind goal setting 

The same Forbes Health poll also revealed that 60% of people feel pressured to set a New Year's resolution. Among these individuals, 37% have specific goals for 2024, and 66.5% plan to create 3 or more goals for the upcoming year. 

What drives people to set goals and make New Year's resolutions? 

Although the answer may be different for different people, there are some common factors for goal setting; these include: 

The fresh start effect: The “fresh start effect” motivates individuals to pursue aspirational goals immediately after a big landmark, such as at the start of a new year. These moments are natural opportunities for positive changes, and aligning with a time frame can help in working toward goals. Research on the fresh start effect show that creating these new mental periods of time helps individuals to put past periods of imperfections behind them and can help motivate aspirational behaviors that make it more likely to stick to those goals than ones that were made with no mental benchmarks. 

Purpose and motivation: Goals provide direction and purpose, driven by a fundamental desire for personal improvement and growth. This intrinsic motivation aligns with psychological theories emphasizing the natural human drive for fulfillment and self-actualization. 

Social connection and executive function: Goals foster social connection and are crucial for building communities. Whether in families, teams, corporations, or nations, shared goals are essential for collective success. Goal setting is integral to the brain's executive function, distinguishing humans by enabling planned and purposeful actions. 

Reward center and dopamine: Setting goals triggers the release of dopamine, commonly known as the “feel good” chemical. Dopamine helps to manage pleasure and reward centers in the brain while regulating emotional responses. Neuroscientists have found that pursuing goals can significantly impact our emotions as it triggers pleasure centers in our brains, regardless of the outcome. This suggests that pursuing a goal is just as important as achieving it, providing a biological basis for the well-known saying emphasizing the significance of the journey over the destination. 


Why resolutions fail 

A common reason people fail to achieve their New Year's resolutions is false hope syndrome. This happens when individuals, often fueled with overconfidence, set unrealistic goals, leading to frustration, and eventually giving up on the resolutions altogether. 

False hope syndrome is particularly common when resolutions are related to technology and the internet. Although there is so much technology to help people succeed at resolutions—such as online support groups, habit-tracking apps, smart watches, and social media platforms—these may create a negative circle of reinforcement. The ubiquity of these tools to make habit change easier may actually hinder resolution success. 

While it is important to remember that setbacks are a normal part of any journey, it’s also important to learn that failure can be a constructive part of the process toward eventual success and personal growth. 

Negative thought patterns also can stand in the way of achieving self-improvement goals. Always expecting failure can lead to negative thinking, undermining the outcome of our efforts. The internet can make this worse by reinforcing negativity. 


Creating lasting habits 

Surprisingly, too much support can hinder success. Studies suggest that an optimal level of assistance is more effective, emphasizing quality over quantity. Clear and specific goals also play a crucial role. In one study, researchers investigated New Year’s resolutions to understand how successful individuals were in maintaining their resolutions and whether specific support mechanisms could improve success. Participants were divided into three groups with different levels of support: Group 1 had no support, Group 2 had some support, and Group 3 had extended support, including guidance on effective goal setting, formulation of SMART goals, and information on the benefits of involving friends and family. 

The researchers aimed to determine if the support provided, including guidance on effective goal setting, influenced individuals' success in sticking to their resolutions. The study employed various measures, such as self-assessment of success, surveys on quality of life, procrastination, and self-efficacy, along with assessments of participants' confidence in achieving their goals. 

Results from the study indicated that individuals with approach-oriented goals (focused on achieving something) tended to be more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals (focused on avoiding something). Interestingly, the group with some support performed better than those with extended support. 

Building on these insights, the following are practical tips to help you or those you support to stay on track with your resolutions. 


Tips for effective goal setting 

Set SMART goals: Set SMART Goals instead of resolutions. SMART goals refer to goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

  • Be specific about what you want to accomplish and why it is important. 
  • Ensure measurability by quantifying progress toward the goal. 
  • Make goals achievable, breaking long-term goals into smaller, more manageable steps. 
  • Determine the relevance of goals in your current life situation, especially in professional settings. 
  • Set a specific deadline in order to create a sense of urgency and motivation to act and create a healthy reward system for meeting each small goal. 

Focus on one behavior at a time: Trying to change everything at once can be overwhelming and lead to discouragement, ultimately hindering progress. Instead, it's better to focus on changing one habit or behavior at a time, allowing for gradual progress and a greater chance of success in the long run. Taking small steps can lead to creating long-lasting positive changes. 

Share your experiences: Talk about your goals with family and friends. Finding support, whether a workout class or a group of coworkers with similar goals, can provide encouragement and understanding. Discussing your struggles and successes with others makes the journey less intimidating. 

Expect setbacks: Perfection is unattainable. Minor setbacks are expected when working towards goals, so don't give up entirely due to minor mistakes. Resolve to learn from your missteps and get back on track. 


Key takeaway 

New Year's resolutions are an excellent opportunity to set goals that align with our aspirations for personal growth and well-being, but goals can be set at any point in the year. With the right mindset and approach, any goal is achievable.