Andy Larsen: What are the most common New Year’s resolutions? And what can help you keep them?

Health tops the list, and support from others can bring success.

New Year Launch | Pat Bagley

Hey, everyone, it’s New Year’s resolution time.

Inspired by the turn of the calendar — and while procrastinating accomplishing my own stated goals — I thought I’d look into all of the research I could find on New Year’s resolutions. What scientific data exists about one of the world’s most shared traditions?

In the end, I was able to find a handful of studies dealing with the topic. Here’s what they said.

What resolutions do people pick most often?

One 2021 study asked 1,201 American adults about their New Year’s resolutions — and, as you’d expect if you ask that many people, you get a wide range of goals. Some were as general as “Be happy.” Others were specific: “Watch every Meryl Streep movie.”

But most resolutions concerned health: 55% of those people with goals named at least one goal that prioritized physical health. Some 45% also had a goal that concerned mental health. Only about 8% of people had a goal related to money, and 7% of resolutions dealt with substance use (defined as drinking or smoking).

The most common pair of words in the resolutions were exactly what you’d expect: “lose weight.” When people named a specific number of pounds they wanted to lose, 30 pounds was the most common response, followed by 20 and 10.

Do our resolutions reflect our culture?

I encountered two studies that had the following thought: Could you see how people’s New Year’s resolutions differ around the world, and use that to compare how various cultures value things differently?

The first study, from back in 1957, wasn’t much of one. It noted how two polls had asked Americans and British people about their New Year’s resolutions. It turned out that the resolution “to improve my character” appeared frequently in the American responses and not in the British ones.

Author Maurice L. Farber, from the University of Connecticut, then made some enjoyable but unsupported sweeping generalizations like “For the Englishman, the concept of character bears a special burden of emotion. It is omitted from New Year’s resolutions not because it is unimportant, but because it is too important.”

OK, sir, calm down. You don’t know that.

The second study was better. In 2020, a crew from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzed 160,000 tweets that contained information on people’s New Year’s resolutions. Researchers then compared the languages in which those tweets were written: Did people who wrote their tweets in English have different resolutions than those who wrote them in Japanese, Korean, German or Italian?

Interestingly, most of the differences between the groups weren’t statistically significant. For example, the percentage of tweets including resolutions about “body” weren’t separable across the five languages. Every language wanted to get thin at about the same rates.

But Korean tweets wanted to improve motivation and effort statistically more often than other languages; Italian tweeters wanted to improve their self-worth more than others. German tweets wanted to improve the collective well-being of their communities, usually via politics, significantly more often.

How many people succeed with their resolutions?

The number of people who achieve their resolutions depends drastically on the study — the way it was conducted and, critically, the follow-up time at which the question of success was asked.

Perhaps the most oft-cited study in the resolution literature comes from G. Alan Marlatt and Burt Kaplan from 1972. They found that 15 weeks after the start of the new year, people with weight-loss goals had fared no differently than those without such aims. They hadn’t worked. But among those with non-weight goals, 75% of people considered themselves successful.

Later, in 1989, a study tracked 200 people through their resolutions and discovered that, as you’d expect, people’s success with their resolutions declined over time. “One week into the new year,” the study states, “77% of participants had maintained their resolutions; the number decreased to 55% after one month, 43% after three months, 40% after six months, and 19% at the two-year follow-up.”

Even so, those who state their resolutions are much better at accomplishing them than those who don’t. In 2002, another study looked at New Year’s resolvers compared to a group who had similar goals but were interested in changing it in other ways. After six months, 46% of those who made resolutions reported change, while 4% of those who hadn’t made resolutions changed.

Why do people give up?

Few people make the explicit, intentional decision to quit pursuing their New Year’s resolutions. In that 2021 study, 10% with goals explicitly chose that pursuing them wasn’t worth it.

Instead, when asked about their reasons their resolutions fell through, the five most common words in their responses were time (40% of resolutions that had been discontinued), feel (15%), eat (13%), life (10%) and money (10%).

What leads to resolution success?

It turns out being too explicit about what your goal is seems to make it less likely that you’ll feel you’ve achieved it.

That 2021 study separated those 1,021 adults into three groups: Group 1 participants received no support on their goals. Group 2 was asked to name a specific friend or family member who would support the participants throughout the year, along with 12 monthly follow-ups from the study scientists.

Group 3 participants got the whole enchilada of support: the Group 2 ingredients, plus classes about how to set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-framed resolutions. They were sent more emails with exercises regarding motivation, thought patterns and negative spirals. They were also asked to set interim goals throughout the year.

Know what’s funny? The Group 3 participants felt they were least effective of all of the groups in accomplishing their goals — even less effective than those who got no support at all. Ah, it’s so great when studies don’t work out the way their designers expect.

Maybe the emails were annoying. Maybe the interim goals made people feel as if they were failing earlier in the process. Maybe the specific and measurable goals gave people a real benchmark to fall short of. Regardless, the most successful resolution achievers were in Group 2 — those who just got help from a friend and were checked on once a month.

Researchers did find a significant difference across the three groups between those who set goals that had something to do with changing their approach (59% were successful a year later) and those who said they simply wanted to avoid something (47%).

So if weight loss is your goal, consider editing that goal to reflect how you’ll accomplish that — “work out more” or “change my diet” rather than just reflect something you want to avoid. Find a friend to support you but one who won’t send you “helpful” emails.

Most of all, regardless of your resolutions — and whether you achieve them — I wish you, our Tribune readers, a happy and healthy 2023.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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