The intriguing science behind keeping your New Year’s resolutions

The New Year has arrived, and for many, this marks the beginning of an annual quest for self-improvement. The permission to overindulge that Christmas brings has been packed away with the tree, and advertising campaigns have transitioned from celebrating Yule Logs and Baileys to pushing gym memberships and healthy eating plans. However, we know that New Year’s resolutions are often difficult to maintain in the longterm, so how helpful is this tradition? Can science provide insight into constructive changes we can make at this arbitrary time point, and perhaps more importantly, how to make them last?

If your previous attempts at keeping New Year’s resolutions have not gone to plan, you are not alone. In a 2017 YouGov survey, 65 per cent of people admitted to having failed to keep their resolutions that year, with one in five reporting that they had given up as early as the sixth of January. So what makes it so difficult to stick to these annual pledges?

Evidence from a 2016 study led by Kaitlin Wooley and Ayelet Fichbash suggests that the conflict between instant and delayed gratification makes it hard to form new habits and achieve our goals. Researchers observed that most resolutions reported in the study were challenging long-term projects, with 55 per cent of participants aiming to lose weight and improve fitness, and 33 per cent aiming to save more or get out of debt.

Although participants were largely pursuing these goals for delayed rewards, the researchers consistently found that presence of instant rewards were the largest predictors of success. As we might imagine, it seems we are much more likely to stick to good habits if we find them enjoyable and fun in the short term, even if we are ultimately pursuing them for their long-term benefits.

Something else to bear in mind is a phenomenon described as ‘the empathy gap.’ This is a cognitive bias which means that when setting goals, we find it difficult to accurately perceive how our future selves will feel while in the process of trying to realise these goals.

Because of this empathy gap, we tend to overestimate how well we are likely to deal with temptation when we are in a different mental state, especially when it comes to the powerful influence of visceral drives – things like hunger, pain, and fear – on our decision-making. As a result, attending that early morning spin class feels a lot more achievable on 1 January, than on 11 January, when work stress and daily routines have kicked in.

So, what if you are still pondering what to do differently in the New Year, besides the usual suspects of diet and exercise? If you are looking for a suggestion backed by evidence, you might aspire to spend more time outside. Although it may sound like a clichéd piece of advice, there is now a large body of evidence to testify that nature is beneficial for our mental and physical health.

A recent 17-year long study from the University of Exeter found that people living in greener UK neighbourhoods experienced higher levels of wellbeing and less mental distress. Furthermore, children with ADHD have been shown to experience a boost in focus comparable with that from a dose of medication after playing for a short time in natural surroundings.

Even a small effort could make a difference. In a 2011 study, Japanese researchers investigated the cardiovascular benefits of Shinrin-Yoku, the simple act of walking in the forest (or ‘forest-bathing’ to use the more romantic literal translation). Spending time in this setting significantly reduced levels of the stress-hormone cortisol in the participants, as well as leading to a reduction in both heart rate and blood pressure.

If you have decided to take on a resolution this year, be that to hit the gym or to start practising the Japanese art of Shirin-Yoku, remember that there is a compelling argument that supports making your enjoyment a priority. If you happen to have already fallen off your wagon of choice, do not worry as you do not have to wait until next January to try again.


Image credit: Carol VanHook via Flickr

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