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New Year's resolutions are more satisfying when they're focused on others

The time has come for New Year’s resolutions, when many of us will set ambitious goals to improve our lives in 2021. But a new study from the University of Rochester suggests that this year, we must change our approach to making resolutions. According to Professor Richard Ryan, goals that involve giving to others are not only the most satisfying, but may also be the most necessary as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

“There are many goals that even when achieved will not bring people more happiness. A goal of making more money, for example, may get a person working harder, but may actually leave them less connected to others, or feeling less autonomy on a day-to-day basis. It could make the person less happy. Goals that work are ones where we can find real satisfaction in achieving them.”

Professor Ryan is a clinical psychologist and an international expert on human motivation. His advice on resolutions is that most of the time people are simply not successful at following through with them. 

“The saddest part is that most people don’t succeed at their January 1 resolutions. But that is because most of these midnight resolutions look more like pressure coming from the outside – an attempt to look better, relieve guilt, or meet the standards of others.”

“Losing weight, for example, is one of the most common New Year’s goals and one that people tend to do poorly at. Part of the reason for that is where it’s coming from: it’s often coming from internal or external pressure – as opposed to a goal that’s something that you might intrinsically value such as having more health or vitality. If the goal is one that is not ‘authentic’ and not really coming from your own values or interests, the energy for it fades fast.”

However, Professor Ryan notes that any occasion that gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives is ultimately a good thing. “Whenever that happens, if it’s really a reflective change – something that you put your heart behind – that can be good for people.”

“For most of us, if we give ourselves occasional moments of reflection-taking the time to really think about what’s going well in our lives and what really matters-we can usually identify some things we could change.”

“Often that means listening to that little nagging feeling about the things that we know would improve our lives. It means allowing ourselves to tune into that inner signal in an open, non-defensive way and to consider the possibilities and the choices that you really have. In truth, there are always ways to make life better, but the road upward need not be a painful one – if you are going in the right direction.”

In a decades-long collaboration with fellow Rochester Professor Edward Deci, Ryan developed the self-determination theory (SDT), one of the most widely accepted frameworks of human motivation in contemporary behavioral science. The theory, which is based on the idea that all humans have the natural tendency to behave in effective and healthy ways, may explain what truly motivates people to stick with certain goals.

Acts of kindness toward others satisfy all three of the basic psychological needs identified in Professor Ryan’s theory – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Competence gives us a sense of accomplishment, while autonomy helps us find personal value. Relatedness can be achieved by working with and feeling connected to others.

“If you want to make a New Year’s resolution that really makes you happy, think about the ways in which you can contribute to the world. All three of these basic needs are fulfilled. The research shows it’s not just good for the world but also really good for you.”

“We found that when people are focused on giving to others they experience deeper satisfactions than when their goals are more self-oriented. For example, experiments show that doing something benevolent for others, even when you will never meet the beneficiary, increases your positive mood and energy.” 

“Most recently, we published a study about what we call people’s ‘integrative span.’ We discovered that your happiness increases as your focus of concern and care gets wider. If your main concerns and cares are narrow and selfish – just about ‘me and the people very close to me’ versus about “my family and my community’ versus about ‘the larger world and everything in it’ – the less happy you are prone to be. A broader scope of caring and concern for others, in contrast, predicts a higher well-being.”

So, now it is time to settle on our resolutions. How do we set goals that we are most likely to achieve? “Beyond the focus of your goals, there are some key elements to success at any resolution you might make,” says Professor Ryan.

“First, make sure your goal is one you truly embrace – that you are fully behind and care about. An achievable goal is also one that is not abstract, like ‘improve my health’ but concrete – such as ‘increase my daily step count’ or ‘drink sparkling water rather than sugared soda at lunch.’ These latter goals are clear and achievable in a way that a vague global resolution can never be. Once having a clear aim, the next step is making a realistic plan on how and when it will be implemented.”

“Just as important, research shows that the more you can make achieving your resolution fun and ‘intrinsically motivated’ the more you’ll persist. For example, a plan to increase your step count might include a walk each day with a good friend – which will both achieve your step goal and satisfy relatedness needs. By finding an activity that both gets you to your goal and that you actually enjoy – or at least don’t find aversive – you’ll be more likely to carry on.”

“Finally, successful resolutions are usually built upon optimal challenges. Setting the bar too high will feel discouraging and lead to disengagement. Keep in mind that with almost any long-term goal the best strategy is to set small incremental goals – not ‘I’m going to climb Everest’ but rather ‘I’m going to take these first few steps toward base camp.'”

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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