For many of us, the start of a new year heralds a new beginning, and an important opportunity to commit to significant personal changes. But why does this single moment in the year hold almost superstitious significance as the optimal time for change?
As a psychologist who counsels people throughout the year, I believe there are several reasons. The end of a calendar year and simultaneous holiday break allows people to reflect on the previous year and take stock of things they’ve achieved – or not.
This reflection can provide important information about how successes were achieved, or why desired changes were not: bad timing, lack of preparation, a need to change priorities, diminishing motivation, and so on.
Psychologically, the new year provides a “clean slate” where one can start afresh and leave behind the disappointments, frustrations and “old self” and start again.
So far that all sounds good but, as we all know, few people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions. I believe there are several main reasons for this.
One of the most common is that resolutions are impulsive, often-drunken and fanciful fantasies. Caught up in the festive spirit, it may only occur to people to make a resolution during the New Year’s Eve celebrations – hardly an ideal place to select and plan behaviour change.
Afterwards we trivialise our choice of goal and commitment to it as not much more than a whim, not really believing we will actually achieve the goals we set. At this point it really doesn’t look too promising. By the time the hangover has worn off or we’re back from holidays, the resolutions you made might be forgotten, or at least treated as a holiday novelty.
By way of contrast, in my clinical work I see people throughout the year who are motivated to make changes in their lives. On the whole, my clients (thankfully) do make substantial changes in significant areas of their lives, but the difference here, in contrast to many people’s New Year’s resolutions, is that my clients are motivated to change for often very negative reasons, or due to devastating events.
That’s not to say we can’t make important changes for positive reasons with the aim of enhancing our lives, rather than just making ourselves less unhappy. What we can take from this clinical experience are the important elements that can lead to successful life-changes for any person.
It’s vitally important to find the right time for change – a time when you’re in the right mental space and perhaps financial situation to achieve your goal. Arguably, the most important step is putting in the hard work in preparation for the life change.
It’s also important to ensure your goal is realistic, meaningful, worthwhile, desirable, appropriate to your broader needs and, ultimately, whether it’s worth the sacrifices that may be required to achieve it.
Of course, the road to significant and lasting personal change is often fraught with challenges. It’s important to:
- anticipate set-backs and use them as important learning opportunities
- establish a team of genuine supporters
- break larger goals into smaller achievable steps, including something that can be done each day
- ensure you reward yourself for progress regularly – celebrate each step as it’s achieved.
While ridding yourself of a bad thing (such as excessive alcohol use) can be motivating and worthy, unless you balance such a goal with some positive gain it’s unlikely you’ll be motivated by the process. In fact, without positive gain, you’re likely to feel pessimistic about the significant change.
In clinical psychology too, it’s essential to introduce “positive psychology”, even to the most troubling issues, including depression, entrenched negative behaviours, or destructive inter-personal relationships.
Positive psychology could include a focus on increased fitness and exercise, rather than simply aiming to lose weight, or increasing opportunities for fun and novelty, rather than simply drinking less.
Time and again, I see that we are more motivated to change if that change includes adding something of value to our lives. Importantly, this change in itself becomes self-rewarding and more likely to repeated – and with enthusiasm.
The pioneering researcher in positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that this leads to “learned optimism” and ultimately greater contentment and increased happiness.
So, while New Year’s day may not be the ideal moment to make a meaningful change, it could still be the first step along a productive and successful path toward important life changes.