“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
If you are someone who follows a traditional religion, you most likely have a day such as Yom Kippur, Ashura, or Ash Wednesday, dedicated to atoning for your sins and vowing to make improvements to your life. But if you are not religious, you might still practice a day of devotion and ritualistic vows of self-improvement each year on January 1. New Year’s Day rings in the month of January, dedicated by the ancient Romans to their god Janus. Religious Romans promised the two-faced god that they would be better in the new year than they had been in the past.
According to the Pew Research Center, historically between one-third and one-half of Americans observe this pagan rite every year by making their own New Year’s resolutions. The most common resolutions are fairly predictable: financial resolutions, like saving more money or paying down debt (51 percent in 2019); eating healthier (51 percent); exercising more (50 percent); and losing weight (42 percent).
Old Janus is pretty annoyed at this point, I imagine, because our resolutions overwhelmingly fail. According to academic research on the topic, fewer than half of resolutions are still continuously successful by June. Other surveys find even lower success rates—as low as 6 percent. One way to corroborate these numbers is with market data. For example, gym memberships spike right after New Year’s Day. In one analysis, gym visits start to decline significantly by the third week of January. After eight months, around half of the new members have stopped going entirely.
This stands to reason, of course: If meeting self-improvement goals were so easy, we wouldn’t need to make resolutions in the first place—we would just change. The reason so many people keep observing this New Year’s rite is because they believe that their lives will be better if they make a transformation requiring some sacrifice. The reason they so often fail is because the resolutions they choose don’t match their true goal of greater happiness.
Anticipating difficulty, people come up with creative ways to help them meet their resolutions. Years ago, a friend who resolved to stop swearing asked me to punch him every time he let a cussword fly. (I declined.) Some self-enforcement mechanisms work better than others, as shown in work by John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton. With his colleagues, Norcross has analyzed resolutions that have succeeded and failed, and identified the behaviors most associated with both.
The four habits associated with successful resolutions are mostly positive: practicing self-liberation (that is, strengthening willpower by reinforcing the belief that one can change); rewarding oneself for ongoing success; avoiding situations of temptation; and engaging in positive thinking (envisioning success). Resolution failure is associated with negative thinking, such as focusing on the harm from the old behavior; berating oneself for slipping up; wishing that the challenge didn’t exist in the first place; and minimizing the threat (denying the importance of the resolution). In sum, the key to success is positive motivation.
One big threat to resolution success is sabotage. In one 2000 study covering the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, three scholars found that cigarette manufacturers increased their advertising in January and February, and hypothesized that the companies did this to short-circuit resolutions to quit smoking. This technique is not limited to big tobacco companies, however. Some people report that efforts at self-improvement, such as losing weight, are often sabotaged by loved ones, for all sorts of complex reasons. Keep this in mind if you notice a lot of fresh-baked cookies lying around on January 1.
One piece of advice worth keeping in mind comes from the Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg, in his book Tiny Habits. Fogg shows that to build good new habits—the key to a successful resolution—we need to reduce, implement, and celebrate. That is, reduce new behaviors to something small and manageable, like committing to start by doing two push-ups a day if you are out of shape (not 100); finding where in your routine the new behaviors fit best (do your two push-ups right after breakfast, for example); and then celebrating each day after practicing the behavior (but perhaps not by having a second breakfast).
For my money, though, the most important thing is to go back to first principles, and ask whether your resolutions are the right ones in the first place. When I ask people about the resolutions that fail, they often say that what seemed important in the abstract wasn’t really worth the effort. For instance, losing weight didn’t seem worth it if it meant forgoing family meals. In other words, people imagine the benefits of meeting a resolution without the costs of doing so; when the costs actually present themselves, the resolutions often fail the cost-benefit test, leading the resolutions to be abandoned.
To solve this problem, we need to ask what we are really trying to improve. In almost every case, it is happiness. Our failed resolutions are often attempts to gain happiness indirectly—like losing weight or exercising to become more attractive and, we hope, happier. Instead, we need resolutions that bring happiness directly, so the benefits outweigh the costs immediately.
Let me suggest two direct happiness resolutions for 2021: forgiveness and gratitude.
In this difficult period in our history, from the pandemic to the culture of political contempt, there is a lot of potential for bitterness in our lives. Open up social media and you will see nonstop Olympics-level grudge matches. Even worse, estrangement between family members is strikingly common; one study published in 2015—even before the polarizing political period following the 2016 U.S. presidential election—found that about 44 percent of people were estranged from at least one relative, nearly 17 percent from someone in their immediate family.
One of the most frequent questions I get from readers is about how to deal with family conflict and estrangement. My answer is a New Year’s resolution to forgive. In experiments on forgiveness interventions—helping people forgive those who have harmed them—scholars have found clear evidence that forgiveness has direct happiness benefits. Forgiveness increases hope and self-esteem, while lowering anxiety and depression. This astounded me personally, but my wife found it blindingly obvious. “To refuse to forgive is to cling to something unpleasant,” she reminded me. “It is like hugging garbage.” I had to concede that it’s nice to let go of garbage.
Easy to say, hard to do, of course. One project to teach and foster forgiveness comes from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, which produces forgiveness workbooks for people in countries traumatized by violence and injustice. The process they recommend, using the mnemonic device REACH, is useful for all of us: (R) Recall the hurt; (E) Empathize with the offender; (A) Altruistic gift of forgiveness; (C) Commit; and (H) Hold on to forgiveness. You can run your own experiment on forgiveness and happiness by making a list of five people to forgive in the new year, and then using the REACH technique to do so in both word and deed.
Second, resolve to be more grateful. I know it’s hard sometimes to feel gratitude as we struggle through the pandemic. It will still be a while before life is not disrupted for most people, and some will be suffering the consequences of COVID-19 for a long time. But nearly everyone has something to be grateful for, and the happiness rewards of focusing on those things are enormous.
In 2003, researchers writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology randomly assigned a group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while another group listed hassles or simply neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the second. They also felt better physically, were more optimistic about the upcoming week, and even exercised more. (It seems like it’s more successful to improve your happiness and let that motivate you to exercise, rather than trying to force yourself to exercise and then become happier.)
You can create your own version of this gratitude experiment very simply. Take 15 minutes on New Year’s Day and write down five things you are grateful for. Each evening before retiring, study your list for five minutes. Each week, update the list by adding two items. I personally do this, and I can tell you that the list gets easier and easier to build. Since I do my best thinking while walking, I ponder my list in a 20-minute walk alone after dinner in the cool of the evening. The other night it was 30 degrees and sleeting here in Boston, but I couldn’t bear to miss my gratitude walk. That is an example of a resolution passing the cost-benefit test.
Perhaps this is a new way for you to look at forgiveness and gratitude—as resolutions to work on to raise your happiness, rather than fleeting emotions you can’t control. This is very empowering, which is a good way to start this new year.
We all hope that 2021 will be a year our world emerges from the pandemic, refreshed and reinvigorated. But you don’t have to depend on that to improve your happiness. With the right resolutions—forgive, be grateful (and go ahead, eat a couple of cookies; Janus will forgive you)—your well-being, and that of those you love, will surely rise.
Happy New Year.