New Year’s Resolutions Get a “Bum Rap”!

New Year's Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions get a “bum rap.”  They’re often derided as deluded wishful thinking and as rarely successful.  But I think they provide us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect and reevaluate, to engage in self-forgiveness and acceptance, and to rekindle hope and commitment to important goals—and, if approached carefully, they can be very successful.

Resolutions often involve things we know are good to do, but which either get lost in the mire of our daily obligations—like spending more time with loved ones or dedicating time to charitable work, or which are downright unpleasant—like controlling overeating or spending responsibly.

New Year’s Resolutions can serve as a reminder about our values and priorities.  Each day is filled with obligations and stuff that has to get done.  A special date, like New Year’s Day, can remind us to step back and take a look at where we are and where we’d like to go in life. 

Even more importantly, resolutions provide us with a chance for a “fresh start.”  Renewed hope.  A chance for a “do-over.”  We stop to reflect on what we should be doing—and haven’t done.  We have an opportunity for self-forgiveness for our failings and acceptance of our selves, as we strive to do better.  We can be empowered and reenergized.

How to Make Them Successful

But we can’t just wish something to be and expect it to happen.  We must develop strategies to ensure that we can accomplish these goals. 

Having a significant marker—a clear and special start date—is a good start.  We share New Year’s as a culturally recognized “new beginning.”  Social psychology notes the importance of culturally prescribed “rites of passage”—as in weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Confirmations, etc.—to help mark new beginnings and to solidify new roles.  New Year’s celebrations occur annually and are certainly not as profound as these other rites, but can provide a boost for starting a new journey. 

But the excitement that comes from renewed hope is likely to wane as the year progresses.  Identifying other motivators is important.  We need to identify exactly why we want to pursue this goal.  So family members will be happier?  Which ones?  So we’ll feel more connected to humanity?  In what ways?  So we’ll feel healthier and more comfortable?  How will we experience this?  It’s important to be as specific as possible in answering this question. 

And then we must visualize these positive outcomes—as clearly as if we were watching them occurring on a video.  Research on procrastination tells us that we relate to our “future self” as if it were someone else (Pychyl, 2013).  Eating the cheesecake brings us immediate pleasure—that unfortunate “other person” can deal with the consequences in the future.  So, it’s helpful to look for ways to make our future self salient in the present.  We must visualize ourselves as that fit person, published author, or runner in a marathon.

We must also identify reasonable, realistic, and concrete steps to achieving the goal.  If we wish to lose 20 pounds, write a book, prepare for a marathon, etc., we’ll need to identify the steps on the way to the goal, translated in behavioral terms.  What would one have to do to lose 20 pounds, for example?  On Week 1?  On Week 2?  Again, small steps, defined in terms of behaviors.

Of course we’ll lose track of our goal—“fall off the wagon”—from time to time.  So we also need to establish regular times to reevaluate and reconnect to the goal.  Maybe a weekly time, marked in our calendar, to see how we’ve been doing and the next steps to take.

The “20-second rule” (Acher, 2010) is also very helpful.  We need to create an environment where it will take no more than 20 seconds to begin doing the behavior.  If we want to go for a run every morning, we need to have our running clothes ready and set out so that we can get out of the door before getting distracted from (or talking ourselves out of) the activity.  If we want to be sure we eat more fruits and vegetables, we should have them all washed, prepared, and visible in the refrigerator. 

Finally, research tells us the positive impact of social support, both on well-being and on attaining goals.  We should declare our resolution to others.  Perhaps others can be supportive of our journey and maybe even join in.

You can find more on making even dreaded tasks work in Facing Dreaded Projects.


Acher, S. (2010). The happiness advantage. NY: Crown Business.

Pychyl, T. A. (2013). Solving the procrastination puzzle. LLC Gildan Media.

Why Can’t We Simply Choose Happiness?



HappinessCan’t we simply choose happiness? As a psychologist and psychotherapist, I’ve spent the last 30 years listening to people struggle with anxieties, depression, and loneliness, in search of ways to alleviate unhappiness.  And as a professor, I’ve spent as many years researching ways to build resilience—hoping to find ways to prevent people from “succumbing” to unhappiness.  The more I explore these issues, however, the more I’m convinced that Freud was on the right track.  We are extraordinarily complex creatures who, by nature, are probably not headed toward tranquility or happiness.  If we wish to build a happy life, we’ll have a darned hard fight on our hands.

Brain Research On Neurophysiology of Experiences

I keep returning to a delightful article by Hiss (2014) on the human brain published in the Reader’s Digest a couple of years ago.  Hiss reviews fascinating research on the neurophysiology of such experiences as love, procrastination, reactions to criticism, and road rage, and the basis for many of our emotional struggles. 

We like to think that our intellectual abilities accorded to us by the magnificent cortex provide us with the tools needed to control unpleasant emotions and primitive urges.  But why, then, do we feel our blood pressure rise and rage take over when someone “waves” to us with a single finger from their car?  What just happened?

As Hiss notes, the cortex is a relative newcomer to the brain party.  It’s built on a more primitive mammalian, emotional part of the brain, which is built on an even more primitive reptilian part.  How peaceful—or cooperative—a party should we expect? 

Our Expectations On Handling Life And Emotions

She draws an analogy to a speed boat that’s been built on a row boat base.  We expect to zip through life’s rough waters with ease—something our rickety base may not be able to manage.  It’s amazing that our brains aren’t out of service more often!

So when I hear patients question what’s wrong with them that they can’t seem to manage their emotions or just “choose” to be happy, I remind them that they’re not a Golden Retriever.  And some days, their lizard is active. Why can’t we simply choose happiness? Our brains may not be wired that way.

Mindfulness exercises may help. To learn more about mindfulness, see Mindfulness Training: Introduction and Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices.


Hiss, K. (Sept. 2014). The beautiful life of your brain. Reader’s Digest.

APA Approved SponsorThe Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. The Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies maintains responsibility for this program and its contents.

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