Are new year’s resolutions a good idea?

Dr. Ed de St. Aubin, associate professor of psychology at Marquette, researches meaning-making. Here is his response.

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Yes, of course, it’s a great idea to make new year’s resolutions.

It is also a really bad idea.

Bad because so many of our resolutions are not maintained and this may lead to various forms of self-loathing for some people.

But new year’s resolutions are essentially goals and these can also increase a person’s well-being because they force us to consider what we value most and they help to structure our time.

There is a large area of scholarship known as “Goal Psychology” that examines the dynamics linking personality, behavior and one’s objectives (goals). Recent research in this area by Professor Robert Emmons focuses on personal strivings — various goals a person is trying to achieve in daily life. He has found that those with predominantly POWER-oriented personal strivings, such as “advance my career,” “make more money” or “control my family members,” have relatively lower levels of life well being.

He also discovered that folks with high levels of subjective well being, those who perceive themselves as experiencing lots of positive emotions, list personal strivings centering on the SACRED: “try to spend more time in prayer,” “remember to be grateful for all that God has given me” and “acknowledge the beauty and mystery in my relationships with others.”

Studies conducted by myself, Dan McAdams, and others have shown that psychosocially healthy adults — those with a solid balance of self worth who felt meaning in life, social integration and loved by others — have personal strivings stemming from generativity. This is a desire to nurture younger people and to create a world that benefits future generations.

Such adults list goals such as “spend more time with my children,” “reduce the racism in my community” or “nurture junior colleagues.” Folks with these generative goals tend to be quite happy and to see themselves as living meaningful lives.

So, when it comes to making new year’s resolutions, think a bit about what kinds of goals you are pursuing. Many may seem superficial (lose some weight) or pedestrian (manage debt better). That’s fine. Go ahead and work on these goals. But allow yourself to think big as well. What do you value in life? What provides you with meaning? What kind of world do you want to live in?

My suggestion is that we use the new year’s resolution ritual as a time of both reflection — “what worked well in my life this past year?” — and of values clarification.

Our resolutions should be congruent with what we most value — with those experiences that give our lives meaning.