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We humans seem to like making a fresh start. Whether it’s the beginning of a semester, a month, or a week, we like having a “clean slate” to make changes. The most widely used of these fresh start times are at the beginning of the year, with a New Year’s Resolution. Over 40% of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but much like a firework, we make a bright claim with a loud noise, only for it to burn out quickly as the year goes on. How can we make good resolutions that we are likely to follow, and are there strategies we can use to help us follow through?
Probably the most important piece of a New Year’s Resolution is coming up with a good resolution in the first place! Surveys show that around two-thirds of all resolutions are health-oriented, including eating healthier, exercising, getting in shape, etc. Psychological studies have shown that the wording of your resolution matters. Most resolutions can be broadly lumped into either activation or avoidance goals. Activation goals are those that encourage you to do something: exercise more, eat more greens, etc. Avoidance goals are those that encourage you to not do something: watch less TV, eat less pizza, etc. Several studies have shown that activation goals are significantly more likely to be successful than avoidance goals
Sometimes our end goal is to decrease something: to lose weight, stop smoking, or eat slightly fewer cookies. In order to increase chances of success, it can be helpful to reimagine these goals as activation goals. Instead of losing weight, we can aim to exercise four days a week. Instead of stopping smoking, we can try to chew gum daily. Instead of eating fewer cookies, we can try to do some push-ups instead. When trying to avoid negative things, it can be hard to find rewards and easy to identify failures. By trying to do positive things, we can enjoy the reward of achieving our goal incrementally. Even small changes can help. Instead of “I resolve to eat no cookies this year” we can set the goal as “I resolve to do a push-up instead of eating a cookie every day.” Eventually, we will focus more on the positive action, the push-up, than the negative one, the cookie. This way our brain will spend more time focusing on the things we resolve to do!
When we follow through on a resolution, we are making a behavioral change. These changes are governed by our brain, and mimic changes within it. Some of our most popular resolutions correspond to changes in our reward pathway, called the mesocorticolimbic circuit. This contains several brain structures and is a part of the brain that is hijacked by addictive drugs. Two structures in particular, the nucleus accumbens and striatum, seem to be affected by things like resolutions. Addictive things including sugar decrease these areas’ sensitivity to naturally occurring dopamine. This makes the brain need more and more of those items to find the same level of reward. Lowering sugar, drugs, and alcohol can help restore the dopamine receptors and give your brain a fighting chance. Studies have also shown that exercise increases dopamine sensitivity of the mesocorticolimbic circuit, giving some protection against addictive undesirable behaviors. Other behaviors that we do frequently and repetitively will also make changes to the brain’s pathways, reinforcing the behaviors.
So now we know how to structure our resolutions, and how our brain responds to changes, but what can we do to make sure we don’t give up on our resolutions? The most important change is a lifestyle change. This is true with resolutions, but also with weight loss medications, smoking cessation, etc. Changing the triggers for what you want to avoid makes it easier to do the activities you desire. Even small changes – like sitting in a different chair than your preferred cookie-binge recliner – can make the process easier. Along with this, we want to make sure we have strategies to deal with tempting situations. If work has cookies on Fridays, drinking a lot of water can fill your stomach and help alleviate the temptation. Unexpected situations can also arise. If your mother invites you for afternoon tea and biscuits – only for you to learn that “biscuit” is British for “cookie”- having a plan to politely decline can be very handy. Finally, realize that resolutions aren’t all-or-nothing. If I succumb to chocolatey chip temptation and eat a cookie today, it doesn’t mean I’ve failed at my resolution and should give up. Instead of looking at hiccups as failures, look at them as learning opportunities. These are great opportunities to learn what triggered your lapse and practice a strategy to act positively and avoid this trigger in the future.
Taken together we have solid starting points for our resolutions. Resolve to do positive actions that you want to accomplish. Structure resolutions to be activation based and give yourself opportunities to celebrate success instead of regretting failure. Give yourself the advantage of changing your lifestyle to accommodate and incentivize your resolution. Give yourself a break when you miss a day and learn how to move forward better tomorrow. When we resolve to do things we want to do, we only have to countdown the days until we celebrate another New Year and a successful resolution!
Written by Benton Lowey-Ball, BS Behavioral Neuroscience
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