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You Might Be Doing Your New Year’s Resolutions All Wrong

Updated: May 22, 2022

What you think you know about breaking bad habits and starting new healthy ones might not be right. Here's how to turn things around. (Hint: Part of the answer is in your dopamine.)

The start of a new year signals the opportunity to create a clean slate — a chance to reflect, take stock, and make changes that will help us become the best versions of ourselves. Sounds good, right?

So why are resolutions so hard to keep? One recent survey showed that only about 10% of people who make resolutions still stick with them by the time mid February rolls around.

But willpower isn’t necessarily to blame. The real problem might be the resolutions you picked in the first place. We often set ourselves up for failure by setting goals that are vague, unrealistic, or heavily influenced by what we believe others expect of us. And when we do ‘fail,’ we’re left feeling guilty, disappointed, and self-loathing — a far cry from the strong sense of confidence and empowerment we were after.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on resolutions. They can be a great catalyst for change. So how can we set ourselves up for success and ensure that we really take care of ourselves in the new year? Focus on making small positive changes that can help cultivate positivity and improve overall mental health.

According to Shawn Achor, a leading expert on happiness and positive psychology and author of The Happiness Advantage and Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being, small changes that touch on how we positively interact with others or how we cultivate our inner world can lead to big wins across the board.

When we are positive, our brains experience a major performance boost, or what Achor calls the ‘happiness advantage.” Here’s how it works: When we’re hopeful and appreciative, dopamine floods into the body. This not only improves our mood and triggers feelings of happiness, but it also turns on all of the learning centres in the brain, enabling us to be more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient and productive. In other words, choosing a resolution that taps into this dopamine lift will help you keep your promise to yourself.

The best part: no grand overtures are needed to reap the benefits. “We’ve found that there are ways you can train your brain to be more positive. In just a two-minute span of time, done for 21 days in a row, you can actually rewire your brain, allowing the brain to work more optimistically and more successfully,” Achor explains.

Revamp Your Resolutions

With that in mind, here is a list of the top five achievable resolutions to give you a head start to better mental health in the year ahead:

  1. Practice gratitude. Short on time? Practicing gratitude is one of the quickest and most effective ways to increase happiness, manage depression, and cultivate resilience. All it takes is jotting down or mentally acknowledging a few things you’re grateful for every day. Gratitude is a skill, but with practice you can change the lens through which your brain views the world.

  2. Keep a journal. Whether it’s revisiting a positive experience you had during the day or doing a quick-fire brain dump of all the negative thoughts swimming around in your head, journaling is a great way to ease anxiety. The process can also help you to recognise triggers and learn how to manage them, make sense of how you’re feeling, work through issues and keep yourself from ruminating so you can finally get some quality sleep.

  3. Move your body. Studies show that movement is an effective form of medicine in helping manage depression. You don’t have to sign up for a marathon or even join the gym, but engaging in some form of exercise every day — a short walk, yoga, or a class — can go a long way in keeping your mental and physical health in tip-top shape. The thing that makes this different from the classic, “I want to lose five pounds” resolution is that you’re focused on the action, not the outcome. It changes the intention and how you measure success.

  4. Unplug. There is growing research showing a negative correlation between screen time and psychological well-being. Most of us know that Instagram, Facebook, and other social media apps are more like highlight reels than accurate portrayals of people’s real lives, but it’s hard not to start comparing yourself with others and start feeling anxious and inadequate because your own life seems radically less rosy. Try taking a step back from your social media accounts and see how it impacts your mood and stress levels. You might find that you’re much happier (and not missing out) not being constantly connected. Plus, you may even find that you have more time to dedicate to the things and people that actually bring you joy.

  5. Nourish friendships. Fact: being around other people is critical for your health. Carve out time this year to connect and deepen relationships with the people in your life that inspire you and nurture your soul. Instead of hitting up happy hour, use your time together to get out into nature or attend a cultural event or try something new.

Make Your Resolutions Stick

Real, long-term lifestyle changes take work. Adopt these strategies to help make them happen.

  1. Make a game plan. Having a goal isn’t enough. If you want to see it brought to fruition, you need to define a plan for how to achieve it. That means breaking it down into bite-size chunks and identifying the specific action you’ll need to make the change happen. Then make your resolutions a priority and block out the time in your schedule for them. Treat these time blocks as important appointments.

  2. Think in tandem. Instead of feeling overwhelmed at the idea of both a spin class and the farmers market, gain confidence that a duo of goals often complements each other. “New science tells us that two resolutions are likely to prove as equally successful [as one] when they are closely related, such as eating and exercise, smoking [cessation] and stress management, or relationships and communication,” says John C. Norcross, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing your Goals and Resolutions.

  3. Track progress and celebrate wins. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, tracking progress and celebrating success along the way will help you stay motivated and up your chances for success. He writes: “Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.” There’s no doubt that self-monitoring increases the probability of keeping a resolution. Studies show that some health-related apps have a positive, short-term impact in terms of making changes since they combine self-monitoring, reminders, and rewards.

  4. Harness the power of habit. Targeting our habits is one of the most effective ways to create lasting change. The brain forms a habit when it is consistently rewarded for a given behaviour. To create a new habit, we need to define a cue (a trigger that initiates the desired behaviour), a routine (the desired behaviour), and a reward (the benefit received from performing the behaviour) — what Duhigg calls a habit loop. He provides an example of this in his TED Talk on The Power of Habit, describing a study in Germany designed looking at the role of reward in developing new habits. A group of researchers told a group of people to exercise. One-third of the group was asked to define a cue, like putting their sneakers next to their bed, and eating a piece of chocolate when they finish their workout. Six months later, they found that the second group was 58% more likely to exercise than the first group that had not identified a cue and a reward. “They had even stopped eating the chocolate because their brains had learned that there are these neurotransmitters that reward us for physical activity,” Duhigg explains. “You have to bootstrap your brain into believing that these rewards are real, with a reward you genuinely enjoy.”

  5. Don’t beat yourself up. Slip-ups are bound to happen on the route to reaching your goals. Don’t throw in the towel just because you forgot to journal one morning because you were in a rush or skipped the gym for a week. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Acknowledge what happened and get back on track.

Article by: Libby MacCarthy


Sally Edwards Counselling

I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent

I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours,

self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

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