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The psychology of resolutions

By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
updated 2:31 PM EST, Tue January 3, 2012
Age has something to do with who is making and achieving resolutions.
Age has something to do with who is making and achieving resolutions.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marist poll: 59% of Americans younger than 45 plan to make 2012 resolutions
  • Psychologists advise starting small and asking for support to achieve resolutions
  • Being compassionate toward yourself is the first step, psychologists agree

(CNN) -- Should auld resolutions be forgot and never brought to mind? It depends on your age.

A new Marist poll indicates that even though 62% of the overall American population will not make resolutions for 2012, 59% of Americans younger than 45 planned to do so. For those older than 45, the resolution-making ratio drops to 28%.

"Younger people may be less satisfied with their lives, may have more dreams or goals to accomplish," said Lynn Bufka, psychologist and assistant executive director of the American Psychological Association.

The age statistic makes sense, agrees psychologist and Psychology Today and WebMD contributor Leslie Becker-Phelps, saying that for people who have experienced prolonged emotional pain, the time of year does not prompt them to change.

"I think as people mature, you may find that they just come to a place where they're ready to change," she explained. "Then you're not necessarily seeing it as a New Year's resolution, you're seeing it as an evolution that might happen any time of year for them."

On the whole, only 38% of the more than 1,000 Americans who responded to the poll said they will make a New Year's resolution for 2012.

The top resolution was to lose weight (18%), with exercise in second at 11%. Quit smoking, save more (and subsequently spend less) and be an overall better person tied for the No. 3 spot with 9%.

"It's a human quality to want to reduce your pain and increase your pleasure," Becker-Phelps said of the top three resolutions. "I think they┬╣re often culturally determined: If you look at us as a culture, we certainly have an obesity problem, and we value youth, young bodies and the physical appearance of health."

She attributes the spending less/saving more decree to the "economic uncertainties for our country."

However, like the 62% of the whole population, Becker-Phelps is cautious when it comes to New Year's resolutions.

"If you're making a resolution just to make a resolution, your heart is probably not in it. There's a good chance you won't do what you need to do to make it happen," she says.

If you're among the 33% of resolution-makers who didn't keep their word this past year, the American Psychological Association breaks down how to stay on the resolution bandwagon in five steps: start small, change behaviors one at a time, talk about it, don't beat yourself up, and ask for support.

Communication -- talking about it and asking for support -- is especially poignant for Bufka.

"We often voice our resolutions aloud. That makes us more accountable. If we tell people we plan to change something, we are going to feel a bit more obligation to actually try to make that change," Bufka said. "Or otherwise we have to let them know how or why we didn't make our change."

For Becker-Phelps, not beating yourself up is key. For this, she cites "compassionate self-awareness."

For example, if you're one of the 18% who want to lose the bulge but fall head-first into a burger and beer during a football game, self-berating will only lead to further discouragement.

The first part: Compassion necessitates losing the negativity and over-criticism; respond to yourself as you would respond to your friends.

"We care about friends; we want to help them ease the pain. If you can approach yourself that way -- 'I know you've really struggled with weight for a long time. I know that I have these triggers' versus 'I can't believe you ate all that. You're such a pig' -- then you can be encouraging to yourself," Becker-Phelps explained.

The second part: Being self-aware means understanding yourself in the moment as well as your history and how that plays into your experiences. It means recognizing where your pain stems from, i.e., what triggered your overindulgence.

Going back to the weight loss goal, Becker-Phelps explains that's why food journals are often a successful approach: You're becoming more aware of what you're putting into your body.

"If you have a bad day, relate compassionately," she said. "Everybody slips up; you can get right back on."

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