New Year’s Resolutions: The trite tradition that could have implications for your mental health

The ritual of renewal known as the New Year’s resolution is a difficult process for some people, and even this seemingly innocuous process can have implications for your mental health and well-being.  Lots of people create ambitious resolutions, but research suggests that resolutions with focused, actionable goals have the best chance of succeeding.  Making New Year’s resolutions has become so ubiquitous that it has almost become a social imperative, as if to say that if you don’t publicly declare what you want to change about yourself, you must have some deficiency.  But a quiet, more introspective approach to change may actually be a better approach.


Resolutions are about Your Perception of Success and Failure

The concept of a resolution, particularly the New Years variety, has become trite, something that blows through the door in January, and out again in February.  Psychologists have alluded to the fact that broken resolutions are resolutions that people do not believe in in the first place, can be damaging to self-esteem.  Taking exogenous cues–for example seeing a fitness model and resolving to look like them–is not a sustainable resolution if a person has an aversion to exercise.  Failing at an unrealistic task can trigger a cycle of negative feelings that did not previously exist.

Moreover, research conducted by Antonio Damasio and Joseph Lodoux concluded that in order to put habituated behavior into effect—adopting or maintaining a resolution for example—a person must create new neural pathways from new thinking. The scope of the resolution does not matter as much as the intent: some people have success with smaller commitments, others very large (but concrete) ones. For the best chance of personal success, it is important to have genuine insight into what your true motivation is, along with how failure is rationalized.

Nudge, Don’t Shove

Consider using behavioral nudges—small environmental interventions—to help with resolution goals.  Some behavioral scientists, including Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School, have focused on how smaller gestures can be powerful agents for behavioral change.  One of her study topics revolves around the concept of “temptation bundling,” that allows people to engage in a behavior they like only when they are engaged in a goal activity like exercise (presumably not as appealing.)

Setting your own reward system, such as a financial reward, can also make commitments stickier.  Patients can engage in their own commitment contracts, wherein they put up some money that can either be kept upon the successful fulfillment of a goal or paid out to charity (even a disagreeable one to up the ante) if they fail to meet their goal.

Clearly, these are specific techniques and ideas that can be effective for some people, but the idea is to approach your New Year’s objectives like a craft beer brewer as opposed to one making it for the masses.  Your own ideas, motivations, and emotional insight are your best allies for making the New Year a great one.

My name is Amanda Itzkoff, MD. I am a New York City based Psychiatrist and Assistant Professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

For additional information, please feel free to email our office at To schedule an appointment, call our offices at 917-609-4990.

Be Well,

Dr. Amanda Itzkoff


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