By Drs. Gene Beresin and Steve Schlozman
There’s this guy, Sisyphus.
I feel like he invented the New Year’s resolution.
You know Sisyphus — he’s the guy who works so hard to push that stupid boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down again at the end of his hard work. You’d think he (and we) would have learned after all these years, but there he is, at the bottom of the hill, trying again and again.
It’s a lot like so many of us. “Today,” you may be saying with resolve, “will be different.” “Today I will get that boulder to the top of the hill.” Or: “This year I’ll lose weight. Drink less. Exercise more.” Fill in the blank.
But how many times do we fail in these New Year’s resolutions?
Researchers note that New Year’s resolutions are typically grounded in motivations to change our perceived vices: our addictions, our “bad” behaviors, our so-called “destructive flaws.” We know what’s good for us, we just can’t get it right.
Luckily for us, we do a little better than Sisyphus. It turns out that almost half of us succeed in our goals. We don’t hear about those successes so much but it’s true: We manage to keep about 50 percent of our self-improvement mandates. Of course that means that about 50 percent of the time we lose our momentum before the year is over. Hence, those same darn resolutions return to us each December.
This exercise in at least partial futility begs a fundamental question: Why is “bad” behavior so hard to change? We try to raise our kids to correct misbehavior; why can’t we do it ourselves?
This query is, understandably, the focus of a lot of research. We harbor false or exaggerated predictions. We assume (and we all know the dangers of assumptions) that change will be easier this year, or more predictable this year, or that we’ll somehow have changed enough that the resolution will finally be within our grasp.
Here’s the kicker, though, and it’s an important one: We truly believe that we’ll succeed. We’re not actively lying to ourselves.
Psychologists Janet Polivy and Peter Herman call this a “false-hope syndrome,” an exaggeration of our expectations for change, inevitably followed by the forlorn shutting down of our previously high aspirations. Continue reading