- People commit to eating healthier and exercising in January, but seldom make long-lasting changes.
- Putting too much emphasis on changing one's mindset overlooks research which shows most people change personal habits with support.
- Having others to hold one accountable for one's New Year resolutions helps those resolutions stick.
As the new year approaches, many of us will commit to New Year’s resolutions. We will buy yoga mats and gym memberships. We will tell ourselves that this year will be the year we change and that the changes we make will last.
The truth is that most of us will fail. Though the sale of healthy food increases by almost 30 percent after New Year’s, and sales of sporting goods in the US reached 45 billion dollars in January 2019 (dropping quickly afterward), such trends do nothing for personal health by the time crocuses push through the snow in February.
When President Herbert Hoover extolled the virtues of the rugged individual in 1928, his words became the siren call for a self-help movement that has grown fat on its promises but delivered nothing but increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, addictions, and anxiety. And yet, our individual success, we are told, depends on our individual mindset, our personal grit, or our ability to imagine ourselves as awesome.
None of this advice is factually true. Individual change is possible, of course, and highly controlled experiments with psychology students in laboratories can show short-term changes in behavior. What researchers don’t tell us is that those same behaviors seldom persist after the experiment ends and the burdens of life take hold.
A better way to change ourselves
There is a better way to change our lives. Counterintuitively, the best way to change ourselves is to change the world around us first.
In my early 20s, I learned this first-hand. I am embarrassed to admit I could barely swim, managing nothing more than a flailing dog paddle as a child. A roommate with national certifications as a swimming instructor was looking for the motivation to get up at 6 a.m. twice a week and brave the cold to attend a public swim. Darkness and bitter winter winds discouraged even the most committed exercise enthusiasts, of which we were not. But we made a pact. I’d wake him up and volunteered my rusting Ford pickup as transportation if he would teach me to swim. We set goals (his was to get back in shape; mine was to swim at least a kilometer). There were plenty of excuses to not get to the pool but having committed to each other made it much more difficult to avoid the inevitable plunge when our brains were hardly awake. I’m happy to say that we sustained the routine for months and met our goals.
One could say that we were individually motivated to change and that it was our positive mindset, grit, or optimism that got us out of bed each morning. That is a good description of us on December 15th when we made our pact, but it didn’t describe us on January 15th when it was minus 20 and we were far happier sleeping in.
My work on resilience around the globe has clearly shown that people are able to make and sustain life changes when they are well-resourced individuals. Rugged individuals almost always fail, though the stories we mythologize are those of the hardiest few who succeed even though most of us fail to change our lives for the better when we use the same strategies. The science of success has been misrepresented as an individual pursuit of glory, typified by the inflated stories of Olympic athletes and rags-to-riches CEOs. A deeper dive into the lives of these icons, such as that by a team of researchers led by Mustafa Surkar, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, has shown that mental fortitude can only be sustained by a combination of both incremental challenge and well-meaning support. Focusing just on an individual’s mindset is a formula for an athlete or CEO’s burnout.
While research by Raffael Kalisch and his team at the University of Mainz in Germany has shown that how we think about our experiences, and whether we attribute success to ourselves, will determine our ability to cope with stress and make our lives what we want them to be, that theory all but ignores the fact that our success depends on finding the opportunities to realize our dreams (and make our New Year’s resolutions long-standing habits).
Big challenges require more resources
The bigger the challenges we face, the more resources we need. In practice, that means we are far more likely to succeed with our New Year’s resolutions when we surround ourselves with the people who encourage us and provide us with the luxury of time, money, and emotional support tailored to our needs.
Here’s an example. While in London recently, I heard that a district health department had been encouraging seniors to walk more, even going so far as to have the municipality create a public park across from a large seniors’ residence. Public health workers tried hard to change seniors’ attitudes towards exercise once the park was positioned strategically nearby. It should have worked but it didn’t, at least at first.
The residents who tried to use the park became discouraged by the brevity of the traffic light they had to use to cross four lanes of traffic to access the park. It was only after public health workers went back and interviewed residents about their reasons for not changing their behavior that the problem with the traffic light was discovered and fixed. Motivation to use the park wasn’t the problem. It was entirely a problem of the surrounding environment which discouraged the seniors to change their behavior.
The more we change the world around us in ways that encourage us to be our best, boldest, selves, the more likely our New Year’s resolutions are to produce lasting behavioral change.
Heroux, L. (2017). Comparative marketing strategies of fitness clubs in the United States and Canada. Economics World, 5, 529-538.
Kalisch, R., Müller, M. B., & Tüsher, O. (2015). A conceptual framework for the neurobiological study of resilience. Behavioral and Brain Science, 38, 1-21. doi:10.1017/S0140525X1400082X
Pope, L., Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., & Wansink, B. (2014). New Year's res-illusions: food shopping in the new year competes with healthy intentions. PloS one, 9(12), e110561. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110561
Sarkar, M. (2018). Developing resilience in elite sport: the role of the environment The Sport and Exercise Scientist, 55(Spring). Available at: http://www.bases.org.uk