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2020 has been a disaster for meeting new people, which is why Per Carlbring's New Year's resolution is to spend next year trying to connect with someone new every day. Carlbring, a professor who heads Stockholm University's Department of Psychology, knows a thing or two about making a New Year's resolution stick. He and his colleagues recently published a peer-reviewed study on the topic.
Carlbring was inspired to embark on the study in December 2015 after he attended a virtual reality conference in his native Sweden. One of Carlbring's research areas is using virtual reality for psychiatric treatments, including as a tool to end people's fear of spiders, which is why he attended the conference. He was having lunch with a couple of colleagues, and with New Year's Day fast approaching, he asked them if they had any resolutions. His colleagues said such resolutions are silly. I mean, they kinda are, right? Earth orbiting around the sun once is hardly a good reason to improve yourself. Why not just do what's best for you right now? People are weird.
But Carlbring is a believer in using the start of the year to improve yourself. This past year, he vowed to run 10 kilometers every other day — and he has stuck to it, even through the cold Stockholm winter. "For me, New Year's resolutions work quite well," he says. In devising this study, he wanted to know whether they also work for others and, if so, which kinds are the most successful.
These are important questions, since a lot of us apparently use arbitrary dates that signal the beginning of something new to try to better ourselves. Companies have known this for years. One study, for example, found that tobacco companies have long advertised more around New Year's, probably sensing they might be losing customers. Research shows that people don't care only about new years, but also new weeks, new months and other such landmark dates. In 2014, researchers Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman and Jason Riis dubbed this quirk the "fresh start effect." They found huge spikes in things like visits to the gym and Google searches for "diet" at the beginnings of weeks, months and, naturally, years.
But how successful are people with their resolutions? To answer this, Carlbring and his colleagues recruited 1,066 people through social media and the Swedish press for a yearlong study. They then randomly divided the participants into three groups. The first was a control group whose members were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their New Year's resolutions and weren't given any support in meeting that goal. Members of the second group were asked not only to make New Year's resolutions but also to name friends and family members who could help them, and they received support emails throughout the year to try to help them achieve their goals. Members of the final group were asked to make their New Year's resolutions specific, measurable and to be achieved within a particular time frame. For example, instead of just "I want to lose weight," having a goal like "I want to lose 3 pounds per month." Those in this last group, who made superconcrete resolutions, also received the most support emails, with the idea that this heavier intervention would help them the most to achieve their resolutions.
Carlbring and his team followed up with the latter two groups via email every month and assessed their progress at the end of the year. Overall, about 55% of the study's participants achieved their New Year's resolutions. Not bad. But one group was more successful than the others. Carlbring says they thought it'd be the one whose members had made superconcrete resolutions and were given lots of support. It wasn't. It was the second group, whose members got a little bit of support and made vaguer resolutions.
Why would precise resolutions be less successful? Carlbring and his team believe such resolutions gave participants too much negative feedback. A study participant may have been successfully losing weight, but the person didn't lose the 3 pounds per month promised in the resolution — and that might have led the participant to abandon the whole project. "Being unsuccessful is demoralizing," Carlbring says.
So one lesson from their study is that maybe you should pick a somewhat amorphous New Year's resolution or at least one that won't demoralize you if you don't meet precise goals or time frames.
Their study has more lessons for which type of resolution you should pick. In general, Carlbring says, resolutions come in two flavors. One is those in which we try to avoid something, like cutting out sugar or quitting vaping. The other is those in which we try to start something new, like learning to hang-glide or safely pet tigers. Carlbring says those who had goals for trying new things, as opposed to quitting old things, were more successful. The main reason is simple: Quitting is hard. Meanwhile, learning something new often comes with handy guides on how to do it.
No matter what kind of resolution you pick, Carlbring says, it's helpful to get others involved. Either have the same resolution as someone else, or tell someone about your goal and ask the person to help you stick to it. Peer pressure works. Based on previous studies, Carlbring says, it's also helpful to put money on the line. Give money to a trusted friend with an arrangement that you'll get it back at the end of the year only if you fulfill your resolution. And if you're not successful, your money should go to one of the groups or causes you hate the most. Carlbring says researchers have found that this carrot-and-stick approach can be surprisingly successful.
But even the best New Year's resolutions can go sideways. In November, stand-up comedian Robyn Schall shared on Instagram what her New Year's resolutions had been looking ahead to 2020. You know, before the coronavirus pandemic. She poured a glass of wine and opened up a journal listing her goals. "Goal 1: Make more money (I've been unemployed since March)," she said. "Travel more. Lose weight. Be more social. I wrote, 'Cry less.' I've cried every single day of this whole pandemic."
Here's to a better new year.
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