Are New Years resolutions bad for our mental health?

January is a dreary enough month without the added extra pressure placed on each and every one of us to be a better person than last year, in more ways than one can imagine. The bombardment of new year’s resolution content is accompanied by the onslaught of diet culture infested posts and topped off with the phrase “new year, new me”.

There seems to be an expectation when we reach the end of the year to tally up all our achievements and failures form the year just gone so that we can meaningfully reflect and improve in the year to come. In essence we strive to continue the good and address the situations in which we fell short of our values.

New year’s resolutions often revolve around a few key concepts. Exercise more, eat more healthily and work harder to achieve academic/ work goals. But, this seemingly productive way to start the year may actually have some detrimental effects when it comes to our mental health.

A study published in 2002 in the journal of clinical psychology reported that only 46% of people are able to stick to their new year’s resolutions after a period of 6 months. But there is more to the story than the simple fact that most of us fail to stick to them, there is evidence that they may actually have a negative impact on our mental health. 

New years resolutions increase stress

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves in the new year when we decide to make dramatic changes to our behaviours and try to kick old habits in the bucket, because this act is an innately difficult thing for us to do. Focusing on goals that are too far in the future can cause us anxiety and stress and the goals that we set ourselves are often unrealistic and unsustainable.

We focus on the negative and fail to see the positive

Resolutions that revolve round “fixing” things such as weight issues and academic or work issues can lead to a negative self image being formed which could further materialise into feelings of inadequacy and low self worth when the new year goals are not achieved. Consequently our New Years resolutions can have a significant impact on us as Paul Farmer, chief executive of United Kingdom mental health charity Mind, explains when he states:

focusing on problems or insecurities can lead to feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, and even mild depression.”

So perhaps setting more achievable goals is the best course of action. But in order to set achievable goals we need to understand first why New Years resolution are so hard maintain and what constitutes as a unattainable goal. 

New year’s resolutions are invariably difficult to achieve as the goals that we set for ourselves often orientate themselves around changing our behaviours in a significant way. But our behaviours are not just simple habits, they are more deep rooted into our psychological, social and neurological world than we realise. Each person’s behaviours is made up from complex interactions between a person’s temperament, various emotional and physical needs, past experiences and neurochemical workings. This is particularly potent when considering behaviours that we do to make us feel better, as they tap into our reward systems in the brain which relate a surge of dopamine and make us want to treat the behaviour over and over again. Learning to break these behaviours can consequently be an up hill battle. 

One of the root causes of most of the New Years resolutions being thrown out of the window mid January is that we all seem to fall victim to setting unrealistic and unsustainable goals each and every year. We expect ourselves to wake up on the first of January a new and reformed person, who is going to wake up at 5am every day, go tot eh gym and eat no sugar for the entire month. But there reality is that we are all the same person as we were the day before, most of us are probably feeling hungover and the prospect of having to go the gym sounds far less appealing than having a cu of tea and biscuit in bed. 

But this doesn’t mean that we should give up on new year’s resolutions all together. They can act as a catalyst for positive change if we focus on small positive changes that will improve mental health and wellbeing. 

When we focus on positivity our brain is overcome by a surge of dopamine. We consequently experience a wave of improved mood an happiness and a spike in engagement and motivation allowing us to learn more effectively. Essentially this means that choosing a resolution that targets those dopamine systems will improve your prospects of sustaining the resolution for more than just a few weeks. 

With that in mind, some more positive and effective resolutions may be:

  • practising gratitude
  • journalling moving your body in a healthy way
  • taking time to grow a restore friendships
  • taking a break from phones and social media. 

But the key to being able to keep up with these is to make small achievable targets that eventually build into habits. This means that we less likely to ditch these new formed behaviours a few weeks or months down the line because habits can be automatically activated without even thinking about them meaning that they are often a default behaviour that people revert to unless they have a strong motivation to act differently. 

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