"New year, new me" is a common refrain on New Year's Day. We, as a collective, have somehow convinced ourselves that whatever we say on January 1st will automatically come to pass in the year to come.
Lose weight? We got that. Get rid of that good-for-nothing man? Sure, no problem. Save money, buy a house, travel more, call your mama, and keep your hair and nails on point at all times? Done, done, done, done, and done-done.
At least that's what we're led to think.
But then, somewhere around February 14th, the Peloton starts becoming a de facto clothing rack, you spend another Valentine's Day crying into your wine because that good-for-nothing man is out with one of his many side chicks, and your mama hasn't heard from you in two weeks.
And travel? Are we not still in the middle of a panini? What letter are we up to with this latest variant, anyway?
Snark aside, the point is, even the best-laid plans of mice and men tend to go awry, as the old saying goes. And no matter how much you want to keep your New Year's resolutions, the fact is, sometimes, you simply can't.
Why Making New Year's Resolutions is Bad for Your Mental Health
Shawn Achor is the author of several books on the science — and practice — of mental health, including The Happiness Advantage and Big Potential. He says that when we make too many New Year's resolutions — especially unrealistic ones, like traveling in the middle of a pandemic — we set ourselves up for failure. In so doing, we go into a mental free-fall, which negatively impacts us and our relationships with the world around us.
Achor says it's important to keep a positive viewpoint about things, because it will give you a mental advantage that others may not have.
"When we’re hopeful and appreciative, dopamine floods into the body," Achor says. "This not only improves our mood and triggers feelings of happiness, but it also turns on all of the learning centers in the brain, enabling us to be more engaged, creative motivated, energetic, resilient and productive. In other words, choosing a resolution that taps into this dopamine lift will help you keep your promise to yourself."
So, what should you be doing instead?
Setting unrealistic goals and New Year's resolutions is a great way to mess up your mental health. Instead, experts say that you should be focusing on "little wins" every day. Instead of beating yourself up for not going to the gym every day, focus on how good it felt to walk for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week, on your own terms. Instead of beating yourself up for not calling your mother every day, be grateful you still have a mom to call and talk to.
And, above all else, practice an attitude of gratitude.
"I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I think that you are setting yourself up for failure if you think that you are never going to eat carbs again or that you are going to work out seven days a week," says Dr. Erika Geisler. “Instead, I think that you should have something that you focus on… something that you are intentional about. Maybe that is a word, maybe it is a concept. For example, maybe your word to focus on would be ‘adventure’ or maybe the concept is spending more undivided attention with your children… Remember, wherever we put our focus, that is what grows.”