The Psychology of Resolutions - New Year's Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Michelle Geslani

photo of Dr. Renee Clauselle taken from childpsychologyblog.com/

Years come and go. We ring them in with party hats, bottles of champagne, and a slate of new resolutions that we supposedly swear to live by for the next 12 months. Sometimes we promise to cut back on the beer, do more volunteer work, hit the gym daily, or stop sleeping with that ex — most are good-intentioned, but most also don’t get fulfilled. With such an intense emphasis on making resolutions by the time December 31st rolls around, it’s funny that many are all but forgotten by January 3rd.

What’s the psychology behind New Year resolutions? Why do we make them? Break them?

BreakThru Radio spoke to Dr. Renee Clauselle, a practicing psychologist and founder/clinical director of Child and Family Psychology on Long Island in New York. She is also the Director of School Mental Health Services at St. John’s University, has been an adjunct faculty member at both St. John’s and Teachers College Columbia University and has appeared on Good Morning America.

BreakThru Radio: Why do you think we make New Year’s Resolutions in the first place? What is about the coming new year that’s so inspiring?

Dr. Renee Clauselle: The last week of the year we are surrounded by media and other platforms that are reflecting on the year we are leaving behind.  Reflection is good!  Especially since most of us spend our lives in the rat race, and don’t have much time for reflection and introspection.  It’s great that this time of the year, we are more inclined to rest, appreciate the year gone by, and reflect on goals we may want to make for the upcoming year.

Why do you think we fail to stick to our resolutions?

Along with our reflections and hope for new things in the new year, comes the inclination to make unrealistic goals.  People get so excited about the new year and can get caught up in advertisements for gyms, diets, etc. that they make goals that are unrealistic for their lifestyle or are just too much for anyone to expect of themselves.  The key is to take baby steps toward your goals.

How can we keep the inspiration of the New Year fresh throughout the entire year?

Again, baby steps are the way to go.  Think of all of the things that kept you from reaching your goals last year, (i.e. Over-scheduling yourself, staying out to late at night, passing that great bakery on your way home from work).  Once you have pinpointed your weaknesses, you must accept that they are weaknesses and sheer willpower probably will not prevent them from being weaknesses in the next year.  So you need to devise a game plan and give yourself breathing room to slowly achieve your goals.  If you try to achieve everything by Jan 2nd, you are surely setting yourself up for later failure and lack of consistency.  Remember, it is not a sprint, it is a marathon.

Key to this is that habits are just behavior performed so routinely that it becomes almost automatic and rewarding for us in some way. Our brains develop neural pathways to lead us to a reward, triggered a dopamine release, also known as the pleasure hormone and the more times this pathway is traveled to and rewarded, the stronger the habit will become. The good news is that objects or sensations that are pleasing or necessary for us can also be employed to motivate us to establishing good habits.

While making resolutions is good in theory, sometimes the ones we make are implausible or nearly impossible to keep. We make “bad” resolutions. Why?

I think that people generally overestimate what they can feasible do and do not honestly look at potential pitfalls.  No matter how well intentioned we are to meet our goals, there is this thing called LIFE that creeps up on us and causes us setbacks at time.  We need to give ourselves space to manage these inevitable setbacks and be kind to ourselves in making attainable goals.

One way you can be kind to ourselves is to laugh at ourselves. Laughter is the Best Medicine and it’s own reward.

I tell people to use your humor to spur you on. For example, Invent fun things like calendar reminder calling you to “Wake up Gorgeous” timed to the alarm to get up to go to the gym or put an image of an unattractive and overweight person inside the cookie jar. The laughter and the reminder of your own support of yourself is a strong reward.

What makes a “good” resolution anyway?

Something you are passionate about and can maintain.  List three things that are most important to you in life (ex. health, family, career) try to make goals within these categories and within your big goals make smaller daily, weekly, monthly goals to keep you on track and still allow for potential life setbacks.

You mention on your blog that many resolutions are centered around our desire to let go of old habits that do not benefit us, such as drinking, smoking, or shopping too much. How hard is it (or not) to break these habits?

It depends on the person.  However most of the things listed above have addicting agents. Whenever there is an addiction involved, individuals should of thing they can break these habits by sheer will power. The help of a doctor is needed most of the time.

What kind of mental processes must we go through in order to break these habits and re-establish new, better ones? Must we erase and avoid all temptations or do they make us stronger?

Avoid as many temptations as you can.  Often people think it is just about willpower but often there are other things that are influencing us, (memories, hormones, addictions, social influences). These things, especially the physiological can be impossible to overpower by will power alone.  Do everything you can to help yourself and make it easier on yourself.  I talk about using visualization, favorite songs or changing linked behavior, for example, think of triggers for your old habit and change what they mean to you, for example, don’t equate coffee with cigarettes; begin to equate it with something else, like a crossword puzzle or calling a friend. Repeat the linking process several times until it becomes automatic.

However, don’t feel bad if you can’t do it alone, that’s what support groups and the assistance of a doctor are there for, this kind of support may be warranted in some cases.

You work with a lot of children at your practice. Children are very visual when it comes to learning new things. Would you say that adults could take a cue from them and maybe take a visual approach when it comes to keeping resolutions (i.e. charts, pictures, graphs, videos, etc.)? What are some examples?

Absolutely.  Put a picture of what you want to look like on your refrigerator if you are on a diet or the opposite works too! Put an image of an unattractive and overweight person inside the cookie jar. The laughter and the reminder of your own support of yourself is a strong reward.

There are a number of support groups dedicated to helping people stick to their resolutions. Some you have to pay for, some you don’t. How beneficial are these types of things?

Support is always good.  I believe strongly that it takes a village. But you can also do this with your family Line and link up your family and friends as buddies for a no-fail system of mutual support. If you want to see your teenager save some money, maybe they put $10 into a bank each time you go to the gym or you cooking a healthy meal at home equates to your husband taking you on a movie date.

For more information on Dr. Renee Clauselle, check out the links below:

Dr. Clauselle’s blog

Official website of Child and Family Psychology: http://www.psychologists4kids.com/

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